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Meet Kevin Johnson, NBA player turned mayor

Kevin Johnson was a three-time NBA all-star. Now, he's looking to make a slam dunk as mayor of Sacramento, a city hit hard by the recession.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

If you're a basketball fan, this is the Kevin Johnson you remember: K.J., the all-star point guard for the Phoenix Suns. Whether running the Suns' offense or dunking over seven-footers like Houston's Hakeem Olajuwan, the combative Johnson was more than a match for almost any opponent.

But take a look at what he's up against now. Today, K.J. is mayor of Sacramento, Calif., and, if the meltdown had a hometown, this might be it.

Kevin Johnson: The big challenges for the city of Sacramento are no different than the ones that we're facing nationally and statewide.

Sacramento is -- in some ways -- a bellwether for the economic state of the nation. It cratered faster and deeper into the foreclosure crisis than almost any city in the country. With an unemployment rate somewhere north of 11 percent, the California's capital city is a full two points higher than the national average.Pretty tough going for the multi-millionaire hometown sports hero who's brand new to politics.

Kevin Johnson: I'm living the dream.  I'm living the dream.  I mean, a kid who grows up in an inner-city, poor part of Sacramento, California, first in my family to go to college.  Luckily to graduate and play 12 years in the NBA. I didn't think my life could get any better.

Johnson's election last November made history. He's the first African American mayor of a city that is only fifteen percent black. And, Kevin Johnson is a child of Sacramento's Oak Park neighborhood.

Oak Park began as Sacramento's first suburb; it was working class when Johnson was growing up here. But it became the part of town where people lock their doors when they drive through.

Johnson's mother was only 16 when he was born here. His father drowned when Kevin was three, and he was raised in this house by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, a sheet metal worker, would become a model for young Kevin.

Kevin Johnson: The number one lesson he taught me in life is that you have to be a good neighbor, a Good Samaritan, at all times.

Johnson excelled at baseball before becoming a basketball star at Sacramento High. But the athlete who was such a good student that he skipped a grade in grammar school was in for a reality check when he won a scholarship to the University of California-Berkley.

Kevin Johnson: I was woefully unprepared. I remember sitting in an English class and they were talking about euphemisms. So, I didn't know what the word meant.  I remember going back and feeling this small. And I made a commitment that day, that I was--  gonna go back to my community in Sacramento and make sure that kids just like me would not feel what I felt in college.

After college, Johnson passed on an opportunity to play professional baseball with the Oakland A's and went to the NBA.

And he starting giving back to Sacramento. Using some of his NBA money, Johnson established a faith-based foundation called St. Hope in his old neighborhood.

It began as an after school program but over 20 years has expanded to include charter schools, including Sacramento high and a development corporation that's brought an art gallery, a bookstore, a barbershop and a movie theater to oak park.

Josh Mankiewicz: How is Saint Hope different from charitable foundations that celebrities just kind of lend their names to?

Kevin Johnson: we're very focused in education and charter schools. Last year's graduating class, 83 percent got accepted to a four-year college. 

Josh Mankiewicz: And when they get into college, they're gonna know what a euphemism is?

Kevin Johnson:  They're gonna definitely know what a euphemism is. (laughter) Absolutely.  Absolutely.

He thought about politics when he was still with the Suns, courted by both parties ... But he wasn't ready to commit.

By 2008, after a stint as an analyst with NBC sports, he came home to work on St. Hope, ad he found that fire in his belly. He ran as a Democrat. But, he may not have seen what was coming.

Kevin Johnson: The historians of Sacramento have clearly said it was the dirtiest campaign that this city has ever seen.

The seven-candidate primary was brutal, but Johnson finished first and went on to defeat the two- term incumbent.

He's been pretty much on his feet since then. Hizzoner's day starts at 5 a.m. with a run with staffers. A strategy session in perpetual motion, time well spent.

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton:

Marcos Breton: He's really going to be tested as a politician in the coming months. Huge budget deficit.  Huge cutback in city services.  Huge challenges in terms of investment and lack thereof in Sacramento.

Josh Mankiewicz: Not easy.

Marcos Breton: Not easy.  Difficult for the most seasoned politician and you're still talking about a rookie having to do work that would humble a veteran.

Josh Mankiewicz: You could have done anything you wanted.  And what you want to do is sit in meetings and talk about municipal finance and how many positions you're gonna have to cut?  (laughter)

Kevin Johnson: It's a strange, strange, strange way things work out.  I'm in this job and this seat to solve problems, and to make people's lives better.  So whatever that challenge is, I'm gonna meet it. 

And so a man who once played in front of huge crowds in the NBA making $6 million a year is now spending his evenings in city council meetings with an audience measured in dozens...for one fiftieth the money.

Josh Mankiewicz:  True that you haven't touched a basketball basically since you hung it up?

Kevin Johnson: Touched a basketball one time in nine years/and my goal was, to see if I can dunk, on my 40th birthday.  I am sad to report that I was not able to dunk on my 40th birthday and have not touched it since.  (laughter)

Johnson has only been mayor since the end of November and he's getting a lesson in politics, which it turns out, is more of a contact sport than the one he used to play.

Kevin Johnson: That's, you know, politics they-- they throw even more elbows, and they're sharper.

Josh Mankiewicz: And they don't all get called.

Kevin Johnson: Yeah, they don't get called. 

Josh Mankiewicz: I can't help but think that that was not what you expected.

Kevin Johnson: It wasn't what I expected, but again (laughter), I say, "When you're play in the NBA, you're booed half the time.  And they'll even boo you at home if you're not playing well (laughter).

Johnson heard the crowd turn against him early this year after news reports about a Sacramento homeless encampment drew world- wide attention and pushed him onto the national stage.

The newly-minted mayor made the best of it.

Tent City was shut down. A new shelter opened for those homeless willing to move there. It may have been little more than a temporary solution. But the new mayor had faced--and finessed-- his first public-relations challenge.

And, it turns out that who he was on the hardwood is who he is on City Hall's marble floors.

Josh Mankiewicz: I talked to somebody today who said, "You know, this guy, when he was a player, he was exacting and he was-- he knew exactly what he wanted and he used to yell at other players who didn't move to the right spots, and he used to scowl at people when they didn't play well enough, and he's gotta learn that doesn't work in politics."

Kevin Johnson:  All that's like, "I wanna win.  I want a sense of urgency.  I want people to feel like we have a chance."    So, it-- for me, it's just this relentlessness of-- just being the best and-- and not wanting to let up.  And people respect that.

Josh Mankiewicz: So, you're pleading guilty to some of that?

Kevin Johnson: Absolutely guilty.  Guilty.