Kevin Johnson wanted to quit. Game over. Take the ball and head home.
Actually, leave the ball and sprint home.
Johnson's breaking point came in the early winter, 1980. Long before he became the mayor of his hometown, Johnson was a wispy, quick sophomore guard on the junior varsity basketball team at Sacramento High School. He detested losing, and after another setback, Johnson concluded the game was better without him.
"I wanted out, but Bob Honda wouldn't let me," Johnson said this week, remembering the man who became more than just his coach. "It would have changed my life."
Honda – a teacher, coach and counselor for 37 years in the Sacramento City Unified School District – died last month of a heart attack. He was 74. He was a kindly fellow who also could enforce harsh discipline. Johnson bears proof.
"We were off to a rough start," Johnson said of his early prep days with Honda. "We weren't playing well. I was so frustrated. We were 2-23 my freshman year, too, with a different coach, and things weren't getting better my sophomore year. I remember Mr. Honda sitting me down in the Sac High Pavilion, on the steps, saying, 'You can't quit. You fight, you claw, you struggle and find a way through this.' I wound up averaging 20 points, and we finished first or second in league. It was a great message."
Johnson thought of his old mentor during a wild week of mixed emotions for the mayor. On Monday morning, Johnson learned of the passing of Honda, whom he had kept in contact with through the years. Later that afternoon, Johnson said he nearly jumped out of his skin – "that's an understatement," he insisted amid laughter – upon learning that an NBA advisory committee had voted unanimously to reject the Kings relocating to Seattle.
Honda's message of perseverance resonated with Johnson as a teenager and now.
"You see the role he played with me, even in this fight to keep the Kings here," Johnson said. "Coach Honda's tenacity is still with me. It's helped me. Never quit. Keep fighting.
"Coach Honda was one of the good guys. Long after I left Sac High, we maintained a close relationship. I'd visit him when I could. I saw him a year ago, when he was in (an assisted living facility), but he was still in good spirits. He had a great life, a full life, and he did it for the right reasons. A man of integrity."
Wes Honda said his father "was proudest to have coached Kevin Johnson. College recruiters would come by to watch Ernest Lee of Kennedy, and Dad would say, 'Take a look at Kevin, too.' The rest is history."
Johnson carved out a rich chapter. He dedicated himself to basketball after his sit-down with Honda. He led the state in scoring in 1983, when Honda and Sacramento varsity coach Ron McKenna deemed him the fastest baseline-to-baseline player they had ever seen. Johnson logged 12 NBA seasons, retiring at 34 in 2000. He departed with plenty left in his tank, but the game was becoming a grind. Johnson said he didn't want his body to break down, costing him mobility and quality of life later.
"I wanted to be able to run and work out later, so I walked away," Johnson said.
Johnson has handled a basketball twice in the 13 years since he retired. His hoops fix now is keeping the Kings in town.
"Once was my 40th birthday, and once was on my 45th (taking shots in Dave Hotell Pavilion at Sac High after midnight), and 2016 will be the third time," Johnson said of his 50th birthday.
Johnson said another lesson from Honda was balance. Condition the body and mind.
"I get up at 5 in the morning, I run and think," Johnson said. "Having that space helps me keep balance and (handle) the challenge of being mayor. When you play professional basketball, it's a game, achieving at the highest level. As mayor, it's more than just basketball. It's keeping a team here, competing at the highest level and beyond, for the decency and the everyday people."
Somewhere, Bob Honda grins in approval. Honda's service is set for May 11 at the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church on Franklin Boulevard in south Sacramento. The time has yet to be determined.