Commentary

Mickey Johnson's leadership quest

Former Chicago Bull tries to give back to his community through political career

Updated: February 2, 2011, 7:09 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

You have to look hard at his campaign literature to find out he's a former Chicago Bull. Nowhere does it say he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds in his second season out of a college smaller than your average high school graduating class. Or that he was the first point forward in the NBA.

[+] EnlargeMickey Johnson
Courtesy of Mickey JohnsonMickey Johnson always has considered himself a leader, on and off the court.

Mickey Johnson admits it doesn't hurt to be a former pro athlete when you're running for public office. "But the reason I don't use it," he says, "is that people want to find out where their next meal is coming from, whether they will be housed or have jobs. Talking about basketball may help as a door-opener, but I have to close it with issues and solutions."

Johnson, running for alderman of the 24th Ward, where he grew up in the North Lawndale area on Chicago's West Side, knows all about open doors.

He remembers a time when it wasn't unusual to drop in for a meal at a neighbor's house, even spend a night if he needed.

"Now even next-door neighbors don't know each other," he says. "The curtains are shut, the doors are closed, and I have to change that. I want to bring light into the neighborhood."

Bring up the subject of athletes and politicsm, and the names of former U.S. senators and congressmen Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp and Jim Bunning immediately come to mind. Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Dave Bing is the current mayor of Detroit. Over the past year, former Portland Trailblazer Chris Dudley ran unsuccessfully for governor of Oregon, joining a younger generation of former athletes like Shawn Bradley, who lost a congressional bid last year, and Jon Runyan, who won his. Today's athletes are certainly not immune to such endeavors. Most high draft picks quickly form their own charitable foundations, many directly involved in the community beyond what is required by their teams. Johnson, whose life of public service began as a 10-year-old passing out campaign literature for a city councilman, would like to see even more. "I think they should be even more hands-on when they're able to do it," he says. "Foundations are good but people like them to be around. I think that's more encouraging than anything else, to be an example. Give them sports but promote education to encourage them to go in the right direction. Let them know there are other avenues in sports, like broadcasting, PR, officiating."

As an avid Bulls fan, Johnson says he is "very impressed" with the off-court potential of Derrick Rose.

"The only thing I'd like to see him work on -- and most players have to -- is to communicate a little better with people," Johnson says. "At 22, he's getting better and he's very capable. When you're able to do that, not just in basketball but in other areas, he will be remembered above and beyond just basketball."

Johnson's father wanted him to be an auto mechanic. His mother wanted him to graduate from high school. He went on to Aurora College with a student population he estimated at 600.

"I really wasn't expecting to make it in the pros," he says. "I already applied for a job at Sears as a buyer. Especially during that time, you wanted to get a college education, a job, a family and all that. A typical American life."

The former world headquarters of Sears Roebuck has been torn down, with only three buildings still standing in North Lawndale as a reminder of what once was. It is the departure of Sears, which moved downtown in 1974, as well as the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, that are still blamed for the deterioration of the area, which is saddled by some of the highest crime and unemployment rates, and lowest average income (more than 40 percent of households earn less than $15,000 annually) in the city.

"When Sears and the Sears banking system left, that's what really killed us," Johnson said.

Johnson worked for Bulls coach Dick Motta at his Aurora College basketball camp for two years before Motta encouraged him to compete in the World University Games and for a spot on the national AAU team, which was coached by Larry Brown. That Motta then invited Johnson to participate in the Bulls' summer league was a gift.

"[Motta] said I was a nice young man and he wanted me to have the experience of being in a pro camp," Johnson recalls. "He said, 'I only have you here to have a taste for the money.' Those were his exact words. I made about $500 a week. It was great money."

Portland selected Johnson with their fourth-round pick in the 1974 draft, then traded him to the Bulls for a third-rounder conditional upon Johnson making the team. He ended up playing five seasons for the Bulls (averaging 16.5 points, nine rebounds in the last four) and 12 years in the league for the Indiana Pacers (for whom he averaged a career-high 19.1 points), Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets and Golden State Warriors.

Following his retirement, Johnson moved to suburban Oak Park, where his four children attended school. He became a Cook County Deputy Sheriff and still owns a pest control business that his son Wallace runs and operates out of North Lawndale.

But he was never far from the old neighborhood and eventually moved back seven years ago, now living in a building between his mother, his ex-wife and his mother-in-law.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/Sal VederMickey Johnson averaged 16.5 points and nine rebounds in his last four seasons with the Bulls.

"My children and my ex-wife felt I went overboard, I was there so much, and that I was neglecting them in some respects," he says. "It was a fine line I had to cross sometimes, but the people in this ward gave me so much and the mentoring I had coming up, I was just trying to do as much as I could."

As much, he says, without committing to public office or to anyone else's organizations.

"I thought I could do more and spread myself out a little bit more," he says. "A lot of people asked me why I was not with any foundation, but I found out in a couple of instances that you're limited. Then if I feel they're going in the wrong direction, it might mar my reputation. I felt it was better for me to help as much as I could but not be labeled with any particular group."

Then last year, unhappy with the incumbent and looking around for an aldermanic candidate to support in this election, he decided to run himself. When he looks at other former athletes who have entered the political arena, he realizes that for most, it was a natural move. And for himself as well.

"It was easy for guys like Dave Bing and Bill Bradley, because they were leaders all along," he says. "In my case, I was a leader on just about every team I went to, and I'm willing to take a leadership role."

Johnson laughs when referred to as old-school but does not disagree, ringing doorbells and handing out campaign literature.

"This is it," he says. "Where the dirty work has to come in, walking the streets, knocking on doors, letting them know me personally, hands-on and in person, rain, sleet or snow.

"It just seems to be a better way."

With 18 candidates on the 24th Ward ballot, Johnson said it's like being back at tiny Aurora College all over again, trying to overcome the odds. It's not any easier when the incumbent's name is also on the ballot, he says, and most of his campaign funds have come out of his own pocket.

But campaigning during Tuesday's blizzard, Johnson remains undaunted. And win or lose, it's clear he's not going anywhere.

"I'm very proud of my neighborhood," he says, ticking off the names of five professional athletes -- Darryl Stingley, Otis Armstrong, Roy Sanders and his nephew Linton Johnson -- as well as NBA ref Danny Crawford and Louis Price of the Temptations.

"But everyone else is telling our stories instead of us, and they're always negative. And once you keep pounding and pounding on what a 'bad neighborhood' it is, then people start believing it. We have to tell our own story, instead other people telling it for us."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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