NCAA honors 6 ex-collegiate standouts

Updated: January 14, 2012, 3:04 AM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Kevin Johnson thought he'd seen every trick in the book as a college and NBA point guard.

That was before he entered politics.

"I thought when I decided to be an elected official, I thought that basketball was a dirty sport where folks throw elbows and all that," the Sacramento mayor jokingly told the crowd Friday night at the NCAA's Honors Celebration. "Politics is a whole `nother level. You've got little old ladies you think are there to support you. They will cut you up in a minute."

Johnson, who played at the University of California and starred in the NBA for the Phoenix Suns, was rewarded Friday for his on- and off-the-court exploits as a Silver Anniversary award winner. The award recognizes distinguished individuals on the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their collegiate athletics careers.

Other Silver Anniversary honorees were Sean Payton, David Robinson, Tim Brown, Doris Burke and Amy Perko.

Robinson played college basketball at Navy and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Brown won the Heisman Trophy for Notre Dame in 1987. Burke, a former Providence basketball player, is a broadcaster for ESPN. Perko, a former Wake Forest basketball player, is the executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Payton, the former Eastern Illinois quarterback who now coaches the New Orleans Saints, had planned to attend the event, but his team has a playoff game at San Francisco on Saturday.

Several other former athletes were honored as well.

Will Allen was given the Association's highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award. Allen was the first African-American men's basketball player at the University of Miami and is now CEO of Growing Power, a nationally-recognized nonprofit that focuses on urban farming.

Inspiration Award honorees were Jill Costello and Louis Zamperini. Costello, a former University of California rower, passed away due to lung cancer a month after her squad finished second in the 2010 NCAA Division I Women's Rowing Championships. Zamperini, a World War II POW, utilized attributes he gained as a runner at the University of Southern California to survive and eventually forgive his captors.

Today's Top VIII winners include Sam Acho (Texas football), Kelsey Bruder (Florida softball), Shannon Gagne (New Haven track), Kayla Hoffman (Alabama gymnastics), Lee Ellis Moore (Mississippi track), Danielle Robinson (Oklahoma women's basketball), Kendra Stern (Amherst swimming and diving) and Brittany Viola (Miami swimming and diving). The award recognizes student-athletes who completed their athletics eligibility during the 2010-11 academic year for on- and off-the-court success.

Johnson has been working feverishly to keep the Sacramento Kings from leaving town. City efforts to help finance a new arena are on pace to meet NBA Commissioner David Stern's March 1 deadline, or at least show enough progress for an extension before the Kings again explore relocation. The Sacramento City Council has approved several preliminary measures to finance a new arena, including a key step last month asking companies interested in leasing the city's downtown parking operations to come forward.

For Johnson, a Sacramento native, it's about more than basketball.

"What I learned playing basketball in Sacramento is a basketball team is about civic pride and it brings people together," he said. "That's a pretty powerful thing. But as a mayor, it's about jobs. The Kings employ 1,000 people in Sacramento. I don't want to lose a major employer. It's about quality of life, it's about creating an environment where a community can come together and rally. So for a whole bunch of reasons other than basketball, I want to do everything I can to make sure we remain an NBA city."

Burke became teary-eyed when she tried to put being honored in perspective. After all, she's gotten far more out of sports than she ever imagined after a good run playing basketball for Providence. She joked that her sports career has gotten better the further she has moved from her playing days.

As a youngster, Burke listened to Al McGuire and Billy Packer during their basketball broadcasts, but she never imagined she would follow in their footsteps. Back then, few women were involved in sports on television, so that path was not a realistic option for her, and she was a shy student who didn't major in broadcasting.

She didn't expect to make a career out of playing either. The 1987 graduate ranks 10th in scoring and second in career assists at Providence, but there was no WNBA back then, and even if there was, she doesn't believe she would have made it.

Everything worked out: She's been with ESPN since 1991.

Robinson was an NBA star for the San Antonio Spurs and has remained active in that city since retiring. He founded the Carver Academy, a school that offers high-quality education to kids who likely wouldn't have access to it otherwise.

"When I went out and looked for schools for my oldest son, I just realized the cost of a private school education and the reality that a lot of kids face going to some of these subpar public schools," he said. "I was a product of public schools. I love public schools. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids are subject to environments where they're not going to be really encouraged and nurtured."

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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press