By Connie Wardman
NOTE: In light of the racist remarks about Magic Johnson made recently by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, we wanted to highlight an article we ran on Johnson in the December 2013 issue of Compete Magazine as part of our ICON series.
Are you old enough to remember the first time you saw Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. play basketball? If you’re too young to have watched him play, then just pay attention to his nickname, Magic – he came by it honestly.
Long before he was part of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and the Michigan State University team, it was obvious that when he had the ball, he made “magic” on the court. He earned his nickname when he was only a 15-year old sophomore at Lansing, Michigan’s Everett High School. When he made his first triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists, it was Fred Stabley Jr., a local sports writer for the Lansing State Journal, who first called him Magic. And when he led his team to the state championships in his senior year, the nickname stuck.
Johnson’s life has always been involved in sports in one form or another. But far from becoming just a famous retired legend of the game whose life appears to stop there, his life is really comprised of four very important parts that he has always managed to combine with the same apparent effortlessness he showed on the basketball court. He has managed to integrate all the parts of his life into what appears to be a well-balanced and meaningful whole, an accomplishment that gives him an incredible amount of significance in today’s world.
When we celebrate World AIDS Day this month, much of today’s public awareness about the disease and issues of safe sex and HIV testing has been the result of his work. In addition to his storied professional sports career is his involvement in HIV education, something he vowed to devote himself to when, on November 7, 1991, he made his historic announcement that he had HIV and was retiring from basketball immediately. And on the 21st anniversary of his HIV announcement this November, he helped dedicate the space for the World AIDS Museum and Education Center in Fort Lauderdale, presenting them with one of his Lakers jerseys.
As a successful entrepreneur, Johnson has managed over the years to build a business empire that has been estimated to have a net worth of $700 million. And then there is the personal family man and LGBT ally. He and his wife, Earlitha, better known as “Cookie,” have raised a family and lovingly faced and acknowledged the fact that they have a gay son. And to their credit both individually and as a couple, they have proved to be openly supportive and loving parents. You really can’t know Magic Johnson without taking all four parts of his life into account because they all have meaning and relevance in our world today.
Picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA draft of 1979, the first overall pick, the 6-foot-9 point guard and forward donned his now famous No. 32 jersey that, since it was retired in 1992, has been hanging in the rafters at the Staples Center. No wonder, with career stats like the following:
- Points – 17,707; points-per-game – 19.5
- Rebounds – 6,559; rebounds-per-game – 7.2
- Assists – 10,141; assists-per-game – 11.2
Now add in his awards:
- 5× NBA champion –1980, 1982, 1985, 1987–1988
- 3× NBA Finals MVP – 1980, 1982, 1987
- 3× NBA Most Valuable Player 1987, 1989–1990
- 12× NBA All-Star – 1980, 1982–1992
- 2× NBA All-Star Game MVP – 1990, 1992
- 9× All-NBA First Team – 1983–1991
- All-NBA Second Team – 1982
- NBA All-Rookie First Team – 1980
- 4× NBA assists leader – 1983–1984, 1986–1987
- 2× NBA steals leader – 1982–1983
And there are still more honors to come. The NBA named Magic to their list of 50 Greatest Players of All Time in 1996 and in 2002 he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. ESPN added Johnson to their “50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century,” ranking him at number 17, and ESPN.com called him the greatest point guards of all time in 2006, writing that “It could be argued that he’s the one player in NBA history who was better than Michael Jordan.” In September the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Johnson was one of the winners of the 2013 Mannie Jackson – Basketball’s Human Spirit Award.
Although he retired in 1991, fans still voted him as a starter for the 1992 NBA All-Star Game even though some players objected, feeling they might be at risk for contracting HIV if Magic got an open wound while on the court. He was also chosen to be part of the famous U.S. men’s basketball team, now better remembered as the original “Dream Team” that won the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Although Johnson didn’t play much due to knee problems, he received standing ovations from the crowd. And he used that exposure to inspire HIV-positive people who at the time were still thought by many to be facing an unavoidable death sentence.
Johnson made a couple of basketball comebacks with the Lakers in 1994 and 1996, both as a player and a coach. With only a 5-11 record as a head coach, he left coaching and instead purchased a five percent share of the Lakers. But the desire to play competitively was always there. So between his two comebacks, in 1994 he formed a barnstorming team of former NBA and college players called the Magic Johnson All-Stars and he continued to play as frequently as possible with this team up to about 2002.
HIV Activist, Educator and Philanthropist
Prior to the NBA 1991-92 season, a standard physical exam revealed that Magic had tested positive for HIV. When Magic announced that he had HIV and was retiring immediately, he also said that his newly-pregnant wife Cookie and their unborn son (the future Earvin Johnson III, now known as EJ) were not affected.
At that time HIV was generally considered to be a disease of gay men and intravenous drug users; there were relatively few men and women contracting HIV from heterosexual sex. So the general belief was this – if you weren’t gay or an IV drug user, you didn’t need to worry about getting HIV. And just as important was the almost universal belief that those who did contract the HIV virus were automatically facing a horrible death from AIDS and there was absolutely nothing that could be done to combat or prevent it.
Although Johnson first said he didn’t know how he got the disease and had to face rumors of being gay or bisexual, he later admitted that it was the result of unprotected sex with multiple sex partners during his basketball career. In his dramatic retirement announcement he said he would dedicate his life to “battle this deadly disease.”
His announcement was a major story for the news networks and he became an instant hero, even gaining praise from former President George H. W. Bush who said “For me, Magic is a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports.” It had such an impact that his announcement was included by ESPN in its 2004 list of the most memorable moments of the past 25 years. It really did hit mainstream America right between the eyes, jerking us all out of our complacency and illusion that HIV/AIDS only happens to those other people.
While many individuals make heavy duty promises in a moment of crisis, not everyone follows through with his or her promise. But Magic Johnson kept his promise and has become a true hero not just to sports lovers but to untold numbers of people with HIV who saw someone living with HIV, not dying from it. In addition to being a hero to the original generation of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, he has also become a hero to new generations of young people who have been born with HIV. They have benefitted from his honesty as well as his education and advice on practicing safe sex. In his remarks during the dedication of the World AIDS Museum, he said “When I first started treatment years ago, it was 15 pills three times a day. … But now it’s pills once a day.” Johnson said the fact that the museum exists is proof that “the world has also begun to combat the stigma of HIV and AIDS. … We’ve all got to work together and that’s the key.”
Successful Entrepreneur and Media Personality
Magic Johnson is a truly successful entrepreneur; one of the few pro basketball players who didn’t go broke five years or so after his playing days. Since leaving basketball, beyond his percentage purchase of the Lakers, he has invested in movie theaters, a production company and restaurants. Whether true or not, there’s a story that during his playing days, he would sit on the bench and ask advice from the smartest businessmen in Los Angeles who, because of their business success, could afford the expensive center court seats.
Whether that story is true or not, the fact remains that he is a business mover and shaker. As CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, he’s happy to share his business philosophy by putting some of his business quotations on his website – magicjohnson.com. One says, “You have to be persistent in business, because doors didn’t just open right away. I almost had to kick them down. I had to keep coming back.” Another quote says, “Everything is for a reason. Never go backwards. I’m a person who moves forward and I continue to do it. If you do what you’re supposed to do, people will come.”
With this kind of advice about hard work and persistence coming from such a successful businessman, Magic is a popular motivational speaker. And making good use of his college communications studies as well as his professional sports experience, he was an NBA commentator for Turner Network Television for seven years and then left to become a studio analyst for ESPN’s program, NBA Countdown.
In 2010 Magic decided to sell his 4.5 percent share of the Lakers for an undisclosed amount of money, saying that “I am truly humbled to have been a Lakers player for 13 years and an owner for over 10 years. I thank Dr. Buss [Dr. Jerry Buss, Lakers majority owner] from the deepest part of my heart and soul for allowing me such an incredible opportunity.” He continued to vow that he is and will always be “a Laker for life.”
In March 2013 Guggenheim Partners, a financial services firm that includes Magic Johnson and seasoned baseball executive Stan Kasten, agreed to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers for the whopping amount of $2 billion. The financially troubled team was set to be auctioned off when the offer was made.
And what a difference a change in leadership can make. At our Compete Sports Diversity Awards and StandUp Magazine Anniversary held last month in Los Angeles, the StandUp Magazine Sportsmanship Award was presented to the Dodgers by former Dodger Billy Bean, vice chairman of the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, in recognition of the Dodgers’ September LGBT Night Out at Dodger Stadium. In addition to Bean, special guests at the LGBT Night Out included Jason Collins and the lesbian couple who had been kicked out of those same stands 13 years ago for kissing.
Family Man – Father – Ally
For the LGBT community, Johnson will most likely be remembered and honored for his openness and acceptance of his gay son, EJ. In April 2013 when TMZ released video of EJ and his boyfriend walking on LA’s Sunset Strip, a media storm ensued. And rather than run from the press, Johnson did multiple interviews where he said that he and his wife Cookie “couldn’t be prouder of him. Cookie and I love EJ and support him in every way,” he told TMZ. “We’re very proud of him.”
Johnson revealed that he and his wife had suspected early on that EJ, one of their three children, was gay. He said that when EJ was coming of age, they talked with him about his sexuality and the potential challenges he would face if he decided to come out. But they also continued to tell him that they loved and supported him no matter what he decided to do.
Johnson has been an ally of the LGBT community long before his son came out publically. He opposed California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, saying in a recorded telephone message sent to California voters that “Prop 8 singles out one group of Californians to be treated differently – including members of our family, our friends and our coworkers. That is not what California is about. So this Tuesday, vote no on Proposition 8. It is unfair and wrong. Thanks.”
Magic Johnson – An Icon
Although the term Icon is applied rather loosely these days, there can be no question about applying it to Magic Johnson. He is a man of great sports talent, to be sure. But he is so much more than a great basketball player. He is a man who loves his family, a man who faces the adversity and challenges in his life head-on and then works to make the world better as a result of what he’s learned from them.
While many people make promises in times of great stress, few actually keep them once the problem is resolved. Johnson has kept his promise to help educate the public about HIV/AIDS. He has turned into a successful business man who takes time to help others to do the same. He is the loving, accepting and proud father every young LGBT person growing up deserves – he is proud of his gay son and willing to say so publically. And he is a powerful ally for the community as a whole. Yes, Magic Johnson is truly an Icon!