When Kevin Johnson was elected in 2008 as Sacramento’s first black mayor, on the same night Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first black president, he told celebrants, “Both Obama and myself, we ran on a promise and a theme of change. No more business as usual. Let’s buck the status quo. A different kind of government.”
This week Johnson made good on that vow — albeit far from Sacramento. When the racist comments of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling cast a cumulus cloud over the National Basketball Association playoffs, Johnson was the key person who made sure the league’s response was not business as usual — that NBA commissioner Adam Silver understood Sterling’s comments were so foul that Sterling’s ownership must be incinerated. In doing so, Johnson reminded us of the power of athletes when they raise their voice against injustice.
Before he became mayor of Sacramento, Johnson was a star guard for the Phoenix Suns. He was so respected by the players that 14 years after he left the court, he was recently asked to lead a search committee for the next executive director of the players union. That was before allegations that Sterling told a female friend not to bring black people to basketball games, including Hall of Famer and business entrepreneur Magic Johnson.
As the NBA investigated the incident, Johnson posted a passionate, progressive response on Facebook Monday that was impressive for its sweep of history, from Earl Lloyd, the first African American to play in the NBA in 1950, to Jason Collins, the league’s first openly gay player. Speaking for the players, Johnson said, “we believe that Mr. Sterling should no longer have the privilege of being an owner of an NBA team. After all, how can we expect any player (the majority of whom are African-American) to want to work for him?”
Johnson said if the NBA took a strong stand, “it will prove to be a defining moment not just for the sport but for the entire nation.” Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who himself displayed classy leadership of a roiled team during the crisis, told the Associated Press he was particularly impressed that Johnson’s “rallying cry” was “not just about the Clippers or the Lakers or L.A. This is something bigger. It was great.”
According to reporting by The New York Times, the AP, and the National Journal, Johnson assured a strong stand by working the telephones with Silver and top players such as LeBron James, who declared there was “no room” for Sterling in the NBA if the comments were his. On Tuesday, Silver announced that Sterling was banned from the NBA for life, fined $2.5 million, and would be forced to sell the team. Silver’s prepared remarks echoed Johnson’s Facebook post. The commissioner apologized on behalf of the league to players, coaches, fans, partners, “and pioneers of the game like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton, the great Bill Russell, and particularly Magic Johnson.” In a Q and A, Silver said he spoke with Johnson “multiple times a day.”
One major victory of course hardly changes everything. The NBA, despite being three-quarters black, still has only one African American majority owner among its 30 teams, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats. Unexamined and unaddressed is the silent pass given Sterling by fellow owners during his 33 years of ownership, despite a history of housing discrimination in his Los Angeles real estate empire.
The question also remains, is Kevin Johnson a unique comet rising out of a spoiled and self-indulgent universe of athletes who in recent decades have tended to flee political controversies, or will the leadership he displayed in the Sterling debacle inspire today’s players to take much more serious stock of real-world dilemmas and disparities around them? Will they better save the millions of dollars they earn today to pool into ownership opportunities tomorrow?
In some ways, the part of the tape of Sterling’s conversation that should cause the most outrage wasn’t his overt trashing of Magic Johnson. What was more pernicious was the paternalistic, plantation mindset he also displayed. When reminded by his girlfriend that he was making insensitive comments despite owning a very black team, Sterling responded, “Do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses . . . Who makes the game? Do I make the game or do they make the game?”
For a day, the players, past and present, made the game. Earl Lloyd, now 86 years old, told a television station in West Virginia that the ban on Sterling was a “message for the ages.” The question remains whether athletes now realize the impact they can have for the ages. In riding to the rescue, Kevin Johnson said, “Sports is an amazing convener. It has the power to bridge racial divides.” There are many more divides for athletes to bridge.