City Beat

Sterling controversy catapults Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson onto national stage

Kevin Johnson walked slowly to a microphone outside Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday, more than ready to face dozens of reporters and the defining moment of his political career.

He had spent the last three days at the center of a national firestorm. In nationally televised interviews and in private meetings with National Basketball Association executives, Johnson had insisted that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling had to be permanently removed from the league after he was caught on tape reportedly making racist comments. Now that had happened, and Johnson was about to respond on behalf of NBA players.

“I hope every bigot in this country saw what happened to Mr. Sterling,” Johnson said, flanked by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and several current and former NBA stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The episode has been a deeply personal one for Johnson, who has been serving as the lead advocate for the NBA players union as the scandal unfolded. Not only is Johnson a former NBA star, he is also Sacramento’s first African American mayor and a man whose office at City Hall is filled with history books on race relations in this country. He would later say his actions in this saga were the most important of his nearly six years as mayor.

An emotional Johnson opened up about how the week’s events had affected him in an interview with The Sacramento Bee as he waited to board a flight back to Sacramento two hours after the City Hall news conference. Pausing throughout the conversation to search for the right words to capture his thoughts, Johnson said he “knew we were on the brink of history” as the NBA prepared to announce its punishment of Sterling on Tuesday morning.

“When you have institutional racism, when you hear those audiotapes, you just can’t believe that it’s 2014,” he said.

“This was personal,” he added, “this was so personal for me.”

Johnson had been tasked by the NBA Players Association to lead its lobbying effort in the wake of Sterling’s comments, which surfaced over the weekend on the websites of TMZ and Deadspin. The mayor said he spoke with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver more than a dozen times since Saturday, trying to convince the new league boss, just three months into his job, that Sterling had to be dealt with swiftly and severely.

Silver agreed, announcing Tuesday that he was banning Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million. In making the announcement, Silver said he was “particularly grateful” for Johnson’s leadership.

In the Bee interview, Johnson discussed the national attention that the scandal has brought to himself and to the issues of race and sports.

“Sports are pivotal in allowing a country to talk about real issues and civil rights – sports transcend,” he said. “This was truly bigger than basketball. It feels like the most important thing I’ve done since I’ve been mayor.”

The mayor’s office helped coordinate the Los Angeles news conference while juggling interviews for Johnson with CNN and “The Today Show.” Johnson said he received a phone call just a few minutes before the event from Vice President Joe Biden, who told the mayor, “We’re with you, we stand with the players on this.”

Johnson’s profile has grown steadily since he took office in 2008. His role leading Sacramento’s successful effort to block the Kings’ move to Seattle last year earned him national attention in the sports media. And earlier this month, Johnson was installed as the head of the influential U.S. Conference of Mayors – the first time in the organization’s history that a Sacramento mayor has held the leadership post.

But the Sterling saga has elevated his profile even further. He earned far more media attention at the Los Angeles news conference than Garcetti. As the event ended, Johnson was swarmed by reporters and had to be helped back into City Hall by a police officer.

Despite the national exposure – and despite the speculation and encouragement of some on social media – Johnson said he has no plans to become the permanent head of the players union or to use the Sterling saga as a sudden springboard to a more high-profile political position.

Some critics have wondered privately whether the U.S. Conference of Mayors duties and other national events would prevent Johnson from adequately dealing with issues in Sacramento. But Tuesday, he took an earlier flight home, allowing him to be back at City Hall to prepare for the evening’s City Council meeting.

“I love my job,” he said. “As mayor, I have this platform and it can be an extension of what I’m doing in Sacramento. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.”

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who has worked closely with the mayor during the fights to keep the Kings in town and build a new downtown arena, said Johnson handled “the national stage on one of those issues that broke into the public consciousness by demonstrating poise, skill and grace – along with an added dollop of aplomb.”

“(Johnson) established his basketball cred in Phoenix, he proved his political skill in California by keeping the Kings in Sacramento and now he has established his national leadership skill in leading the (players union) on this issue,” Lehane said.

Andy Dolich, a sports consultant and former executive with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies who closely watched Sacramento’s battle to keep the Kings, said Johnson was built for this arena.

“I look at Kevin as understanding the issue from the players’ standpoint, from management’s standpoint, from an elected official’s standpoint,” he said. “He’s a guy who’s dealt with a lot of complexity. If you look at other civic leaders, they can’t possibly have the same kind of background that this mayor has to deal with this issue.”

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