The concept of leadership isn’t an idea that’s foreign to Kevin Johnson. In his life as a point guard, he’s led teams to the playoffs as well as the NBA Finals. In his life as a politician, he’s navigated the city of Sacramento through a transformational phase in its history.
When controversy struck the Los Angeles Clippers and the NBA last week, there was no one better to take the lead on the players’ behalf than Johnson. He’s been on the court before as a player as well as the boardroom before with league brass. His perspective as a three-time NBA All-Star coupled with the relationship he built with owners during the Kings relocation saga made him an ideal choice to bring stability to an unstable situation.
“He was big,” Warriors point guard and NBPA vice president Stephen Curry said of the mayor following Golden State’s Game 6 victory over the Clippers on Thursday. “Obviously, it was such a circus for those 72 hours.”
Indeed, it was a circus. After a damaging audio recording of Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks went public, Curry’s Warriors and the rest of the league were sent into a firestorm. Would players play or would they stage a boycott of the game considering that one of the league’s 30 stewards was discovered to be a cancer?
Enter Johnson, thanks to a phone call by Clippers point guard and NBPA president Chris Paul. With the playoffs in full swing, the 28-year-old All-Star needed help rallying the league’s 400-plus players onto the same page. Johnson’s unique perspective as a former player paired with his background in the political realm made him a fitting recruit for the task at hand.
“His initial job when he came on to help us was to be part of the executive director search,” Curry said of Johnson. “It just so happened the timing of all of that, that his voice was pretty powerful at that moment to navigate us through that and kind of unified all the players with one voice.”
As those in Sacramento saw him do during the Kings relocation saga, Johnson took charge in the Sterling controversy. He kept an ongoing and open dialogue with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, relaying the players’ input on sufficient punishment for the disgraced owner.
Silver had a tall order on his hands, but he responded to the challenge set forth by Johnson and the players. The new commissioner laid down the law by slapping Sterling with a $2.5-million fine and a lifetime ban as well as pushing a vote with the league’s board to remove him from Clippers ownership and the NBA altogether. Johnson’s work on behalf of the players was a success.
“The mission we wanted was to get our message out that we were going to stand strong,” Curry said. “And hopefully, Adam Silver was going to be able to make the right call and he did.”
With the Clipper-drama nearing resolution, pending the forced sale of the franchise, some are pondering what might be next for Johnson. He’s in office as mayor of Sacramento for another two years and he was just sworn in as the 72nd president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Does he have further aspirations of advancing his political career or moving into the private sector? He’s chairing the search committee for the NBPA’s next executive director, but there are many who believe he’d do great work if he took the job himself.
“I’m assuming he’ll have a very difficult choice coming up,” said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers of Johnson, praising the mayor’s leadership over the last week. “Whether wants to continue to be the mayor of Sacramento or the president of the Players’ Association. That’s tough because of where he’s from and all that. So I don’t know if that’s true, I’m just assuming he’d have that choice or do both.
“I don’t know if you can do both,” Rivers added. “But if you can, that’d be great because both parties need him probably. So it’ll be interesting, but he’s been fantastic.”
Regardless of whatever Johnson decides to do next, one thing is certain. His leadership will be one of his strongest assets.