By Alex Tresniowski
December 15, 2003 12:00 PM

Standing up to seven-footers shaped like cement mixers? Not a problem for Kevin Johnson, who at a relatively runty 6’1″ and 190 lbs. was one of the scrappiest players in the NBA. But going toe-to-toe with some kid’s dad at a high school board meeting? “At one point, a parent practically got physical with Mr. Johnson,” says Allen Young, a principal at California’s Sacramento High School. “Those meetings were like the World Wrestling Federation.”

True to form, Johnson did not back down at that March meeting and finally got what he wanted—the chance to save his crumbling former high school. An All Star point guard with the Phoenix Suns before retiring in 2000. Johnson, 37, won the right to convert Sacramento High—plagued by plummeting test scores, student apathy and a deteriorating campus—into a unique charter school run by his nonprofit group the St. Hope Corporation. This past year he raised more than $7 million from big-name donors like Bill Gates, spruced up the 10-acre campus and split it into six separate schools that tailor their curricula to the students’ needs. While it is too soon to measure progress through test results, enrollment has started to rise, to 1,650 students, with awaiting list of 100 more. “My grandad, my mom, my dad, me, all of us went to Sac High,” says Johnson of the school, where only 20 percent of students read at grade level last year. “The fight we fought was worth fighting. Now there’s a waiting list, and it’s all because we raised the bar.”

Far from being another ex-jock searching for his next photo op, Johnson has proved to be a nuts-and-bolts problem solver. Starting in 1995, St. Hope began renovating several blocks in Oak Park, Johnson’s old neighborhood, fixing homes, driving out drug dealers and enticing a Starbucks and other stores to move in. Still, not everyone sees him as a savior in pinstripes. The Sacramento City Teachers Association and about 40 parents tried to block his plan for Sac High at a series of contentious board meetings, in part because they objected to having the school run by a faith-based group. “We see Kevin Johnson as a community philanthropist, not an educator,” says Marcie Launey, president of the Teachers Association.

Others were swayed by Johnson’s passion and drive—the very qualities that made him a dynamic floor general in the NBA. “He has an extraordinary vision, and when he shares it with you, you want to be a part of it,” says Tracy Stigler, the school’s operations director. “He asks, ‘Would you like to make a difference in someone’s life?’ It’s not a tough sales pitch at all.”

Johnson has long stamped himself as a leader. Even as a Little Leaguer in Sacramento “he was always pumping up the team, always saying, ‘We’ll get them next time,’ ” says Johnson’s mother, Georgia West, 54, a registered nurse (his father, Lawrence, an Army serviceman, died in a boating accident when Kevin was 3). His role model was maternal grandfather George Peat, a sheet-metal worker he called Grampy. One night after watching a newscast, Grampy roused 5-year-old Kevin from bed, drove him to a housing project and had him hand two dollars to a single mother who had been robbed. “I gave her the money and she starts crying,” remembers Johnson. “My grandfather taught me to be someone who answers the call of duty.”

At the University of California at Berkeley, where he broke the school’s scoring record, Johnson preferred reading to partying and earned a B.A. in political science. Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1987 and traded to Phoenix in early 1988, he founded St. Hope the following year in order to create after-school programs. “What he does comes from the heart,” says his friend Chris Webber, the Sacramento Kings’ star forward. “He leads by actions, not just talk.” Certainly at Sac High Johnson has been hands-on, touring the campus to supervise projects and encourage students. “He’s kind of like a father figure to me,” says Vernon Lewis, 17, a senior in the School of Arts. “He saw we were kind of in trouble, and he gave us the chance to make something of ourselves.”

Such praise is surely as sweet as a buzzer-beating three-pointer for Johnson, who is single and lives in a modest three-bedroom home in Oak Park, less than a mile from Sac High. An admitted neat freak and workaholic who doesn’t date much—”He has such high expectations that any woman he gets serious about has to be very special,” warns his mom—Johnson spends much of his time arranging meetings and raising funds. Critics who want to stop him better bring their A-games. “My work is my passion,” Johnson says. “That’s what being a good neighbor is all about—helping those in need.”

Alex Tresniowski. Ron Arias in Sacramento