Point(ing) Forward: Mickey Johnson in the 24th Ward
Posted Jan 20 2011 12:29PM
The 24th Ward in Chicago is sadly like a lot of communities in the U.S. High unemployment, abandoned buildings and storefronts, an area bereft of hope and business opportunities. Forty two percent of the households in North Lawndale have incomes of $15,000 or less while its crime rate ranks as the fourth highest in the city.
The prospect of getting this proud area back on fiscal track is a daunting one especially in todayís economic times. Yet itís a challenge that former NBA player, Mickey Johnson, relishes. The 24th Ward is home to Mickey Johnson. Itís a place heís called home for most of his life.
Johnson is among 18 candidates who are running for Alderman of the 24th Ward. Election day is looming -- February 22 -- and Johnson has been working feverishly to get his message and punch button (#51) out to the people, campaigning upwards to 16 hours a day. And when heís not out in the streets, heís updating his message on his web site (johnsonfor24thward).
With 18 candidates vying for one elected position, the odds donít appear favorable for any one particular person yet donít tell Johnson about beating the odds.
The fourth-round draft pick out of tiny Aurora College in Illinois carved out a 12-year NBA career for himself. A career that was teetering on the brink at the beginning before Johnsonís determination, talent and leadership skills blossomed.
The NBAís original point forward, Johnson saw his professional basketball dream come true of playing in Chicago Stadium, a mere two miles south of the 24th Ward, for his hometown Chicago Bulls. Ironically, it wasn't until after Chicago traded to Indiana is when Johnsonís career really took off.
Johnson spoke with NBA.comís John Hareas about why heís running for office, his vision for the 24th Ward, how other former NBA players made the successful transition to public office and why Derrick Rose reminds him of Allen Iverson.
NBA.com: How did you get involved in politics?
Mickey Johnson: Iíve been involved in politics for a very long time. When I was a teenager, the City Councilman had a football team and I worked with him passing out literature and I was part of the football team. I was 10. We received 50 cents to pass out the literature.
NBA.com: Why are you running for office?
Mickey Johnson: I surveyed the people who are running and I didnít see anyone with leadership qualities. There was one young lady I was going to back. She told me she didnít have the time or the patience. After that, there wasnít anyone else that I considered worthy of backing, so I said, ĎMaybe itís my time to run.í
NBA.com: Had you ever held office before?
Mickey Johnson. No, but I have had a close relationship with the politicians in the area. I used to have breakfast with them once a year in my home. We would get together and just talk about the neighborhood and what weíre expecting from each other.
NBA.com: What needs to be changed in the 24th ward?
Mickey Johnson: Thereís so much that needs to be done. The neighborhood has been neglected for such a long time. The 24th Ward was the hub for Sears Roebuck back in the day and when they left, it really left a void in the neighborhood because the people really depended on Sears for jobs. Other businesses piggybacked off of Sears and they were really hurt when they left. After Sears left, the neighborhood was devastated.
NBA.com: Are there opportunities to increase or improve the funding that is allocated to the 24th Ward?
Mickey Johnson: The City Councilman gets a certain amount Ė about $1.5 million a year Ė for the infrastructure in the neighborhood. Thatís very little considering what needs to be done. So we have to find other avenues to generate income.
They use the TIF Ė Tax Instrument Finance Ė but a lot of times, when a TIF is made in a particular neighborhood, that money is not used in that neighborhood. Sometimes a good portion of that money is taken away and given to other neighborhoods and thatís one of the things Iím trying to stop from occurring.
NBA.com: It seems that former basketball players make good politicians, go all the way back to Tom McMillen, Bill Bradley to present day, Dave Bing and Kevin Johnson.
Mickey Johnson: Those are all people who were leaders in the basketball arena and felt that they could do the same in public office.
You canít create leaders. Leaders are born and they are few and far between. I think the athletes of today are truly starting to understand the political benefits that can help them instead of starting their own foundation. They are trying to make the government work for the people and I think thatís one of the big reasons athletes are getting involved even though the ideology might be different.
Former players becoming involved in the political arena removes the stigma that athletes arenít that smart and that they can only play basketball, football or whatever. We have a wealth of talent that is above and beyond sports.
NBA.com: What benefits do former NBA players bring into office?
Mickey Johnson: I was a leader on several teams, especially the Indiana Pacers. The oratorical skills of talking to the press have helped me to this day. The stamina of playing basketball -- in politics, you have to have a lot of stamina to get into politics. You understand and experience the disappointment when things donít go your way, which Iíve had a lot of disappointment during my playing career Ė not winning an NBA championship for one. We know how to handle disappointment, adversity yet continue to try to find a way to breakthrough.
I tell people that the difference between an amateur and a pro is an amateur has to be set up to win and a pro will always find a way to win. McMillen, Bradley, Bing, Johnson, those are all pros because they know what to do regardless of situation. All of us running in politics feel like we can do the same thing.
NBA.com: What type of reception have you received in the Chicago community?
Mickey Johnson: Iíve received a pretty good reception because I never left the 24th Ward. Even during my basketball career, Iíve always stayed within the 24th Ward and the people in the community. A lot of people who do not recognize me when Iím out in the streets but learn of my name as the former basketball player, then theyíre like, ĎOh, yeah, I remember you did such and such for the community.í
NBA.com: How many hours a week are you campaigning?
Mickey Johnson: Every day is walking the streets, getting the word out. Iím handing out my punch number Ė 51, plus some more literature on myself, some of the things I accomplished in the Ward.
I let my son take over my pest control business. Running a campaign is just like running a business. You have to let people know youíre concerned, that youíre visible, accessible and want to talk to them. You have to embrace a grass roots approach and it takes a lot of time to do that.
NBA.com: What is your platform to improve the 24th Ward?
Mickey Johnson: Pretty much all politician platforms are the same: education, crime prevention, business, jobs but the question is, who has the best strategy to address those areas? What is the think tank that can bring the things that weíre talking about into fruition?
For instance, one challenge in the 24th Ward is the vacant lots and abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. The problem is that most investors wonít invest in four-unit buildings or less because the percentage of rent that is not paid. A mispayment of rent can translate to a 25 percent or sometimes 50 percent loss of the total monthly payment that comes in and thatís a problem.
I propose organizing a city block club Ė a group of neighbors getting together and have them qualify for a 501c3, which would make them a not-for-profit group.
Most banks wonít give up the buildings unless they can get a write off. If they can donate to a city block club thatís not-for-profit, then maybe the bank can give it to them as write off.
The city block club would be able to get money to rehab it by grant writing. You can have someone in the city block club take a free class on grant writing and have total autonomy. The citizens can take care of it themselves rather than waiting for someone.
This gives people control of the property that they have and it creates jobs for people on the block, in the neighborhood. So there is a lot that can be done and thatís one of the strategies that I have.
NBA.com: Youíre used to overcoming odds. You werenít an automatic in terms of making an NBA roster. Talk about your journey to the NBA.
Mickey Johnson: I was drafted by the Portland Trail in the fourth round, the same draft they selected Bill Walton as the No. 1 overall pick. I was then traded to the Bulls for a third-round draft choice if I made the team.
I really didnít know I was traded by Portland to Chicago. My mother knew before I did, which I was ironic. She told me to report to the Bulls camp as soon as possible because I was in Portland at the time.
I was happy, ecstatic. A young man from Aurora College, and you have to understand Aurora College, it had a class enrollment of less than 600 people, on and off campus. Just to get that call from the Bulls was great. I was very happy. NBA.com: How was the transition playing in your hometown?
Mickey Johnson: Well, I only played a total of six games in my rookie season. This is how I made the Bulls. Bob Love held out. Maurice Lucas, whom the Bulls drafted, went to the ABA. Cliff Pondexter hurt his leg Ė shin split Ė and a guy named Bill Hewitt who was a older statesman on the team missed two layups in an exhibition game against the Washington Bullets at the University of Illinois. Dick Motta cut him and I made the squad.
Then in the second year, Motta told me he was going to cut me because I really didnít contribute to the team after they had lost to the Golden State Warriors. Motta was a veteran coach and they had four rookies that year Ė Cliff Pondexter, Bobby Wilson, Leon Benbow and myself.
Again, I barely made it. Chet Walker retired, Bob Love held out again and Pondexterís leg did not heal.
What helped was that I did well the summer prior to my second season in the L.A. summer league tournament. I was in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots and the Bulls started thinking about me. But they were still thinking about cutting me.
We had a terrible season my second year. Bob Love got injured and I got a chance to play and after that, I was a starter ever since.
I believe Iím the first Chicagoan to play for Chicago for a full season. Iím pretty much the first. I think it was George Wilson who was there but he was traded to Cincinnati and he didnít play a full season in Chicago but I was able to play there a full year.
NBA.com: What did you learn with those teams in Chicago?
Mickey Johnson: The biggest thing I learned was how to be a professional. With Dick Motta, he didnít believe in curfews. He felt you were an adult. You were here to a job. And I got that sense from Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan, Nate Thurmond. They really showed me how to be a professional no matter you do. As long as you come ready to do your job and that really molded me to be a professional.
I earned my degree in business administration in economics and I really understood the market. I looked myself as a can of soup on the shelf and I didnít want to be left on the shelf. I wanted to be good enough where everybody wants this product. And I did it for 12 years.
NBA.com: How hurt were you when you were traded by the Bulls?
Mickey Johnson: I had mixed feelings about that. When I was with the bulls, they kind of kept me as little Mickey Johnson from Aurora College. It was good for me to get away and thatís when my career really exploded and I found out the things that I could really do. I was sort of confined by the Bulls. One of the reasons they didnít not sign me is that they didnít think I could shoot from the outside or dribble the ball. And I could. And they didnít find that out until I signed with Indiana where I led the team in scoring and rebounding.
Iím the original point forward in the league. I played all five positions in the league. I tripped doubled quite a few times, especially with Indiana, with every team I played for Ė Indiana, Milwaukee, New Jersey, Golden State Ė except the Bulls. Even though I was tall, I was a guard at heart.
In Indiana, I played the three and the four and I was able to go back and forth and the same in Milwaukee although I also played the point with the Bucks as well.
I didnít really blossom until I left the Bulls.
NBA.com: How closely do you follow the Bulls?
Mickey Johnson: Iím there almost every game. I work for WVON. I have a sports show.
NBA.com: Speaking of blossoming, talk about Derrick Roseís emergence.
Mickey Johnson: I didnít think Derrick Rose would be this good. He reminds me of Allen Iverson a little bit. His teammates canít keep up with him. He has to slow down to keep them involved. Once he gets a running mate, like Magic had with Greg Kessler at Michigan State, then I think he can be even better. The Bulls donít really have someone who can really run with him.
The Bulls will improve significantly once Joakim Noah re-joins them. When the Bulls played the Clippers, Blake Griffin bullied Chicagoís frontline when Noah wasnít there. Griffin wouldnít be able to do that if Noah was around.
I truly believe the Bulls will be a contender for the Eastern Conference championship. The Bulls have the speed, the endurance, the youth. The biggest problem for them has been the injuries. First Boozer was out and now Noah. Once they come together, they will compete with anyone come playoff time.