Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson on Sports in Politics

Once known as simply “K.J.” and now as Mayor Kevin Johnson, it has been an amazing ride for the former NBA player-turned-mayor of Sacramento. 

In front of a captivated Malibu audience at City Hall last week, including students from Malibu High School and Pepperdine University, Johnson entertained everyone with stories of transcendence and how sports and politics are intertwined. 

Johnson was invited to speak as a guest of the Malibu Library Speaker Series where he elegantly engaged the audience, sharing insight into his current job as mayor and fondly remembering his past career as a 12-year veteran of the NBA. 

Johnson played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns from 1987 through 2000 before following in the footsteps of former NBA players who became politicians, including New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and current Mayor Brad Sellers (Warrensville Heights, Ohio). 

While in the NBA, Johnson was a three-time NBA All-Star, a four-time second team All-NBA selection and the league’s Most Improved Player in 1989. He reached the NBA Finals in 1993 only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. 

Eight years after he retired, Johnson was elected as the 55th mayor of Sacramento in November 2008 and re-elected to a second term in June 2012. He is the first African-American elected to the office and has aimed to reshape how city government serves its citizens. 

“Believe it or not, but it’s the same skills as playing point guard,” said Johnson, who was one of the NBA’s elite point guards during his playing days. “You have constituents who are like your teammates that you have to make happy. You have to articulate a vision and have a goal as you do in sports. There are a lot of similarities between the two.” 

Interjecting humor along with wisdom while he shared several personal stories, Johnson discussed sports bridging cultural differences and bringing people together. He cited the recent Donald Sterling saga as an example of how society came together during a difficult and sensitive situation. 

“Sports transcend everyday things that happen in society,” said Johnson. “Civil rights in sports bring us together. A negative became a powerful moment in sports.” 

Johnson also made mention of being invited to the White House. He was one of 50 mayors invited to the White House, which fulfilled a childhood dream. 

“We have to make the world what it ought to be. Make the outcome what you want it to be,” he said. “Stick to your principles but abandon your assumptions.” 

Malibu High basketball coach Richard Harris, an avid fan of K.J. as a young boy, brought his team to listen to Johnson. 

“It was great to be here and it was a wonderful presentation,” Harris said. “I thought it was important for them to be here because sports and education are parallel. You can’t do one without the other. K.J. is a great example of someone who excelled in both environments and the students can learn from that. If you can give your all in education and in sports, it can help you a long way. The players loved it.” 

Johnson, who was once recruited by Pepperdine and ultimately chose to attend U.C. Berkeley to play college basketball, spoke afterward about his visit to Malibu. 

“It’s really exciting and it’s an honor,” Johnson said. “I remember getting a recruitment letter from Pepperdine and wanting to go there. Here I am 30-plus years later but I remember it like yesterday. To have some Pepperdine students and Malibu High School students here was great. That’s the next generation. To be able to interact with them was special.” 

In the end, people like MHS basketball player Cordell Newton had the unique opportunity to see and hear a role model in sports who blossomed from one influential career into another. 

“I thought it was a great bonding experience for the basketball team. It’s good for us to go out and do something that interests us all,” Newton said. “Players like him are great on and off the court. They want to do more for their community and not just be known for their athletic ability. We think it’s great to hear the experiences from any professional athlete.” 

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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