Johnson, Kevin

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Kevin Johnson


Mayor of Sacramento, former professional basketball player

Kevin Johnson first rose to prominence as a professional basketball player. After twelve seasons as a point guard for the Phoenix Suns, he retired from basketball to pursue a career in business and philanthropy. His charitable activities are focused on St. HOPE, an organization he founded in 1989 to provide after-school activities to children in his hometown of Sacramento, California. From those modest beginnings, St. HOPE has grown into a multifaceted program with an ambitious mission, according to its Web site: "to revitalize inner-city communities through public education, civic leadership, economic development and the arts." As part of that mission, Johnson won city approval in 2003 to take over ailing Sacramento High School and transform it into the flagship of a faith-based charter-school program. Five years later Johnson gave up day-to-day control of St. HOPE in order to run for mayor of Sacramento.

Kevin Maurice Johnson was born on March 4, 1966, in Sacramento. His mother, Georgia Johnson, is the daughter of a black father and a white mother (also named Georgia); the latter later married George Johnson, a white sheet-metal worker. Kevin's father died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents in the city's troubled Oak Park section. Like many of their neighbors, the family often struggled financially. George Johnson has nevertheless described the period as a happy one, while Kevin has repeatedly credited his grandfather with instilling in him the values of hard work, self-confidence, generosity, and personal ethics. A standout star in both baseball and basketball for Sacramento High School (the school he would later take over), Johnson also did well enough academically to secure a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in political science and again excelled at both baseball and basketball. In 1986, after being signed as a prospect by the Oakland Athletics, a professional baseball team, he spent several summers playing in the minor leagues. It was in basketball, however, that Johnson attracted the most notice, particularly in his junior and senior years, when he was named to the Pac-10 athletic conference's First Team, an annual honor given to only five of the league's players. In the spring of 1987, when Johnson was only a few credits shy of his bachelor's degree (he would complete the degree ten years later), the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association (NBA) selected him in the first round of that year's draft; he was the seventh choice overall.

Johnson's first months in the NBA were something of a disappointment, as he lost the role of starting point guard to Mark Price, a more experienced veteran. In February of 1988, however, Cleveland traded him, along with teammates Tyrone Corbin and Mark West, to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Larry Nance, Mike Sanders, and a future draft pick. Johnson thrived in Phoenix, winning a host of awards including Rookie of the Month (April of 1988) and Most Improved Player (1988-89). He was also named to the league's All-Star team three times (1990, 1991, and 1994) and played on the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the 1994 International Basketball Federation championship in Toronto, Canada. In Phoenix, Johnson was known for his competitiveness on the court, as well as for his generosity and religious faith. A devout Christian, he often led prayer groups with teammates and opponents before games. He also made a habit of buying ten tickets to every home game and distributing them free to friends, acquaintances, and strangers. His personal life was not without problems, however, the most serious of which involved allegations that he molested a sixteen-year-old girl in 1995. Though the Maricopa County (Arizona) District Attorney's office declined to file charges on the grounds that a conviction was not likely, the incident has continued to affect Johnson's career, particularly following his decision to enter politics in 2008.

Focused on Charitable Work

Johnson retired from basketball at the end of the 1998 season, though he returned for six games in the 1999-2000 season when Jason Kidd, his replacement at point guard, was injured. Retirement allowed him to pursue a variety of personal and professional projects. In addition to spending a year from 2000 to 2001 as a basketball commentator for the television program The NBA on NBC, he managed his investments and promoted several real estate developments. Above all, however, he worked to expand St. HOPE, a faith-based charitable organization he founded in 1989 to provide after-school activities to poor, mostly African-American students in Oak Park, his old Sacramento neighborhood.

Johnson's return to Sacramento after retirement coincided with the beginning of a period of explosive growth for the St. HOPE organization, as it moved under his direction from an after-school program to a comprehensive community-development organization focused on economic growth, redevelopment, and charter schools. In May of 2003, for example, St. HOPE's property development division opened the 40 Acres Art and Cultural Center, an award-winning mixed-use facility in the center of Oak Park. Other divisions within St. HOPE include the Hood Corps, which offers neighborhood youth a variety of public-service opportunities, and St. HOPE Public Schools (SHPS), which oversees the group's charter schools.

At a Glance …

Born Kevin Maurice Johnson on March 4, 1966, in Sacramento, CA; son of Georgia Johnson; raised by maternal grandparents George and Georgia Johnson. Religion: Christian. Education: University of California-Berkeley, BA, political science, 1997; completed Summer Leadership Institute for leaders of faith-based nonprofits, Harvard Divinity School, 2000.

Career: Cleveland Cavaliers, point guard, 1987-88; Phoenix Suns, point guard, 1988-98, 1999-2000; NBC Television, basketball commentator, 2000-01; St. HOPE, founder and chairman, 1989-2008; mayor of Sacramento, 2008—.

Awards: First Team, Pac-10 athletic conference, 1985-86 and 1986-87; All-Star Team, National Basketball League, 1989-90, 1990-91, and 1993-94; J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, National Basketball Association, 1990-91; National Caring Award, Caring Institute, 1992; named 411th Point of Light by President George H. W. Bush, 1991; John R. Wooden Lifetime Achievement Award, Paralysis Project of America, 2008.

Addresses: Office—City Hall, 915 I Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-2604.

SHPS is by far the largest component of the St. HOPE organization. Key to its expansion was the 2003 decision by the Sacramento School Board to cede control of Sacramento High School, a struggling inner-city institution, to St. HOPE, which reorganized and reopened it as the flagship of its charter school system. The change was a controversial one, with many city residents expressing unease at the idea of a faith-based organization running a public school; such an arrangement, they felt, violated the principle of the separation of church and state. According to local media accounts, intensive lobbying efforts by the charismatic Johnson were an important factor in the school board's decision. The controversy dissipated soon thereafter, even as St. HOPE continued to expand the program. As of the spring of 2008, the organization was running a total of seven charter schools, with a combined enroll- ment of more than fifteen hundred students from prekindergarten through grade twelve. According to its Web site, St. HOPE planned to expand across the United States, with its first school outside Sacramento, the St. HOPE Leadership Academy, scheduled to open in the Harlem district of New York City in August of 2008.

In January of 2008 Johnson resigned his chairmanship of St. HOPE in order to focus on his political career. Less than two months later, on March 5, 2008, he officially announced his campaign to become mayor of Sacramento. On June 3, 2008, he faced his major opponent, incumbent Heather Fargo, and a number of other candidates in a nonpartisan primary election. According to California law, a runoff election can be avoided if a candidate in a nonpartisan primary wins a majority of votes cast. Though Johnson won with a 7 percent margin over Fargo, he failed to win a majority, and a runoff election was therefore scheduled for November of 2008. Johnson has campaigned on a modest, uncontroversial platform, promising better schools, reduced crime, and economic development. Fargo, for her part, has emphasized her experience, contrasting her years on the city council and as mayor with Johnson's status as a political newcomer. The merits of the candidates, however, have been repeatedly overshadowed in a bitter campaign of mudslinging, much of it aimed at Johnson. The 1995 incident of alleged sexual misconduct, for example, received renewed scrutiny when a minor candidate, Leonard Padilla, drew attention to similar allegations made against Johnson in 2007 by a female student at Sacramento High School. Though the Sacramento Police Department found the charges to be without merit, the episode received significant media attention. Equally troubling for Johnson's campaign were news reports in April of 2008 that AmeriCorps, a public-service program of the federal government, was conducting an investigation of St. HOPE, a major recipient of AmeriCorps funds. Though the alleged incident at Sacramento High School was the major focus of the AmeriCorps investigation, there were also allegations of financial impropriety. However, these charges did not seem to have a lasting impact on Johnson's political career since Johnson won the Sacramento mayoral election in November of 2008.



New York Times, March 7, 2008, p. D5; June 9, 2008, p. A14.


"About Kevin," Kevin Johnson for Mayor, (accessed July 8, 2008).

"History & Timeline," St. HOPE, (accessed July 8, 2008).

"Kevin Johnson," NBA Encyclopedia: Playoff Edition, (accessed July 8, 2008).

—R. Anthony Kugler

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Johnson, Kevin

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