Wednesday March 12th, 2008

Clearly time has proved F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong. For what is public life in America today if not a series of second acts?

Athletes who run afoul of the law become ad pitchmen, movie stars become governors, and now, former NBA All-Star Kevin Johnson hopes to become the next mayor of Sacramento.

"I could have lived anywhere I wanted, but I moved back to my hometown, and I feel that the city has the potential to be a great city," said the 42-year-old Democrat, who has made education, public safety and trust in government the primary thrusts of his campaign in the city of 1.3 million residents.

"And I think to get to the next level, there needs to be a different type of leadership. I just felt I could do more by throwing my hat in the ring and being a participant as opposed to standing on the sidelines."

Johnson, however, has been anything but a quiet observer in the city. Two years into an NBA career during which he set up teammates while becoming the Phoenix Suns' all-time assists leader, Johnson tried to offer similar support to the downtrodden neighborhood where he was raised, Oak Park, by starting a nonprofit corporation dedicated to revitalizing the area. Under the umbrella of his St. HOPE community-development organization, the neighborhood of 20,000 has sprouted 14 businesses, a charter high school and a 25,000-square foot arts and cultural center over the last decade.

"We invested when no one else was willing to do it," Johnson told SI.com after announcing his candidacy last week. "[Oak Park] is a distressed community, and when you can bring in a Starbucks, that's huge. You're providing jobs, it impacts the tax base and more.

"On the education side, we've improved our [Oak Park] school system to the point that in our first graduating class last year, 73 percent of the students got accepted to a four-year college. Prior to us taking over, it was only 20-30 percent."

The path from 12-year NBA point guard to possible point man for a city wasn't set forth for Johnson in leading the Suns to 11 straight playoff appearances. Rather, he was motivated by a grandfather who regularly took his grandson to the voting booth on Election Day.

"My grandfather always taught me to be engaged and be an active participant in the community," Johnson said. A sheet metal worker, Johnson's grandfather also stressed the importance of keeping things simple. "His philosophy was that you measure something twice and cut once, so he was practical and methodical in how he went about doing things. But ultimately, it boiled down to being a good neighbor and making a difference in your community."

St. HOPE has been Johnson's effort at doing that. Funded through a combination of private donations and public partnerships with government entities, it has brought him the type of accolades -- and credibility as a public servant -- that dribbling a basketball couldn't: citizenship awards, "Most Caring American" honors, inclusion on a magazine's list of the "15 Greatest Men on Earth" and induction into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

A recent poll showed Johnson and Sacramento's two-term Democratic mayor, Heather Fargo, in a statistical dead heat for the June 3 primary.

"We're in a ripe moment," said Brian Fischer, a member of the Board of Directors for the Oak Park Neighborhood Association. "We have an opportunity to rethink where [Sacramento] is going. Our current mayor is a wonderful person, but there hasn't been a vision for the next 25 years articulated to the public. That requires a bit of a maverick and a bit of entrepreneurialism. Those qualities are profoundly apparent, not only in Kevin Johnson, but also in the people he's surrounded himself with, who have brought us the different businesses associated with St. HOPE."

Some of those businesses, though, came under intense scrutiny in recent months when the Sacramento Bee published a report that found almost 20 properties owned by various Johnson companies had been cited for city code violations, ranging from lapsed weed abatement to open roofs. The newspaper also reported that some properties were infested with rats and others overrun with bubbling sewage in the backyard.

"Kevin wasn't taking care of his properties," said Linda Roberts, a member of Oak Park United Against Slumlords, an organization that called on the city council to force Johnson to clean up the properties. "Yes, he eventually cleans them up, but he has to be forced to do so every time."

Roberts also claims Johnson's development efforts have "destroyed the historical integrity" of many existing buildings while also driving out local businesses for national chains.

Johnson acknowledges that "we could have done some things better." He responded to the report by cleaning up the lots cited and encouraging the community to tell his organization of any future problems.

"We've owned a lot of properties over 10 years," Johnson said. "There are over 300 vacant lots in Oak Park; we own 10 of them, so to make it seem that we're the ones who were doing all of this is [wrong]. But nonetheless, the public figures this is what happened. So hold us accountable."

That type of accountability is what Johnson says he wants to bring to the mayor's office. To win the hearts of an entire city, though, he has to prove he is more than the former star athlete quick to lend his name to a cause.

"We're going to try to focus on the issues and ideas residents of this city want for their community, and economic development and jobs are at the heart of that," said Johnson, who added that he spent a month simply talking to local residents before deciding to run.

"But I think everything I experienced playing in the NBA will play a role: dealing with the media on a constant basis, getting people to rally around a common goal, working with people from different walks of life and different backgrounds, and being in high-pressure situations and having to make quick judgments.

"I've never taken a shot in basketball that I didn't think was going to go in, and I'm in this to win it."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.