From SLAM 50: If Earvin “Magic” Johnson doesn’t want to talk about his career, guess we’ll have to do it for him.
On this day 53 years ago, a child that’d soon be known to the world as simply “Magic” was born. We’re celebrating the birthday of one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball with the feature below, which former SLAM E-i-C Ryan Jones penned in SLAM 50 (April ’01). Happy born day, Mr. John—er, Magic!—Ed.
by Ryan Jones / @thefarmerjones
These are the strangest words I’ve ever heard: “Mr. Johnson doesn’t like to focus on his basketball career.”
I’m not talking about the whole sentence, really, just those first two words: “Mr. Johnson.” Excuse me? We were calling to ask about an interview with Magic, and…
Oh, wait. Mr. Johnson. I get it.
I’ve just never heard him called that before.
Have you? Think about it. Even if you’re too young to know the man’s real name, you know who Earvin “Magic” Johnson is. If you’re old enough, you might remember that some of his teammates and coaches (and Anthony Kiedis…look it up) used to call him “Buck,” or that he claimed “EJ” as a nickname long before Eddie Jones joined the League. But “Mr. Johnson”? No matter how formal the relationship, it’s hard to imagine anyone—his doctor, his lawyer, his paperboy, anyone—calling him anything other than Magic. And now it’s…Mr. Johnson. Bananas.
Things done changed in the very public life of Magic Johnson, and this is where it starts: “Mr. Johnson doesn’t like to focus on his basketball career.” This from the woman at the other end of the line, who calls him “Mister” because, as an employee of the Magic Johnson Foundation, she’s talking about her boss. If you work in an office, you might call your boss “Mister” too—which makes sense, except that your boss isn’t one of the greatest players in NBA history. Hers is, and she calls him Mr. Johnson, and she’s telling me that the guy I grew up idolizing because he was such an amazing basketball player would rather not talk to SLAM—or anyone, for that matter—about what an amazing basketball player he was.
In which case, it sucks to be us.
I push on, saying we’d love to talk to Magic about everything he’s done since basketball—his invaluable charity work and remarkable business success, in particular—but of course, we’re a basketball magazine, so we’d want to talk about his playing days, too. The bulk of Magic’s career occurred pre-SLAM, I point out, so we’ve never really had a chance to give the man his due. She tells me our request will be considered. I say thanks, we’ll wait to hear from you. We never do. Apparently, Mr. Johnson is too busy to talk about Magic these days. We’ll just have to do it for him.
How you remember Magic Johnson probably has a lot to do with how old you are, and if you bought this magazine, our reader surveys tell us you’re somewhere between 12 and 25. If you’re at the high end of the scale, you’ve probably been around long enough to remember the glory years: The national championship at Michigan State, the five world titles and three MVP awards in the NBA, the gold medal, the whole Hall-of-Fame run. If you’re at the low end, you probably think of Magic as that guy your pops or your older brother told you about; the old guy Jordan beat for his first ring; that big dude who played—and coached—for a minute on those weak Laker teams before Kobe and Shaq got there; the guy who came off so wack on that late night talk show; or, depending on where you live, the guy who owns the Starbucks or the movie theater around the block.
I’m at the high end. I was six years old in May of 1980, and I remember being at a neighbor’s house in the L.A. suburbs with my parents and some friends, barely grasping the excitement of what was happening on TV. Something about this young guy called Magic doing amazing things in a basketball game, and something about the Lakers winning a championship. I was too young to know what the big deal was about a rookie point guard filling in for an injured Hall of Fame center, on the road, in Game Six of the NBA Finals. I didn’t understand how amazing it was, this kid playing 47 minutes—and all five positions—scoring 42 points, shooting 14-of-23 from the floor and 14-of-14 from the line, and adding 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot. I couldn’t fathom the significance of this guy, just three years removed from his last high school game, almost single-handedly stealing an NBA title from Dr. J and the Sixers.
Time went on, I got grown, mind got blown…and Magic Johnson ran the L for the next decade. Four more rings, three MVP trophies, and a yearly starting spot on the Western Conference All-Star squad. I remember the early years, when I’d had enough of my older cousin beating me one-on-one and we’d play Magic and Kareem instead, taking turns throwing no-looks and sky hooks against invisible Birds and McHales under the hoop in my uncle’s driveway. I remember stapling a picture of Larry Legend onto the dartboard in my backyard. I remember when the biggest battle on my 8th grade basketball team wasn’t over playing time or shots, but over who’d get to rock the No. 32 jersey. And I remember how nobody cared that our school’s blue-and-white unis didn’t match the purple-and-gold scheme on our Converse Weapons.
At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was, growing up in SoCal during the ’80s, able to claim the Showtime Lakers as my team, to have Magic—arguably the best passer and floor leader in NBA history, and undoubtedly one of its greatest competitors—as my hero. And then Detroit finally caught ’em and matched that back-to-back. And then Mike got the help he needed to start his dynasty, and the Lakers—my Lakers—were the first victim. And then I’m sitting in a dorm room in rural Pennsylvania, a Cali kid dreading my first East Coast winter, and Magic’s on TV talking about the craziest shit…
I’ve heard my parents and grandparents say they’ll never forget the moment they heard JFK was shot. A lotta y’all may feel the same about when you heard ’Pac or Biggie went out. For me, it was November 7, 1991. Magic retired. Magic’s got HIV. Magic’s gonna die.
Ten years later, Magic Johnson looks and acts and sounds healthier—more alive, really—than just about anybody I know. Experts and regular folks alike figured he’d have withered and passed by now, yet here he is, generating funds and publicity for worthy causes, creating jobs in neglected inner-city neighborhoods, forging lucrative partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, and generally moving more paper than a fleet of New York Times delivery trucks. Like a West Coast Trump, he’s got his fingers in a million pies and his name on every one of them. And this ain’t like Mike, who generally lets his name make his money for him. With Magic, it’s his name and his time and his cash. He’s a businessman in the truest sense, and by all accounts, he runs his moneymaking ventures with as much skill as he used to run the Lakers’ fast break.
All that, and he’s still intimately involved in the game. He’s a team VP and a big brother/father figure to the current Lakers, who can certainly use his advice. Runs his summer all-star game. Got that team in Europe that bears his name. Pops up at Michigan State games, his alma mater’s No. 1 fan. Even finds time to drop in on his old friends in the L, like former teammate and current Nets coach Byron Scott, who he chilled with before a game in Jersey earlier this year. He’ll always be royalty in this game, always a welcome sight in any NBA gym, but as Mr. Johnson’s assistant makes clear on the phone, basketball is no longer the thing—the only thing—that defines Magic. All of which begs a question: What, exactly, are the great ones supposed to do when the greatness runs out?
The business thing makes sense, because it allows Magic to utilize many of the same attributes—ambition, charisma, mental toughness and competitiveness bordering on the profane—that allowed him to succeed on the court. But is this where he—or any of the great ones—should be? Or, more to the point, is this where we want them? Apparently, they’ve gotta do something. Mike’s in the front office in D.C., trying (in vain, so far) to turn the Wizards around. Isiah’s on the bench, just like Bird was for a while, wondering if he can impose his will as easily from the sideline as he did on the court. For so many reasons, these guys need to stay involved—and none more than Magic.
There are exceptions, of course. Remember when Bill Russell wasn’t peddling cheap beer in bad TV commercials, when he was mostly content to stay out of the spotlight and let people remember him for what he was, the classy, consummate winner? That wasn’t an option for Magic. Can you imagine him out of sight like J-Lo and Clooney? Never—and it killed me. Call me selfish, but when it was over, I wanted it to be over. Just like I didn’t want to see Q-Tip wearing furs and dancing on some jiggy solo record after Tribe broke up, I didn’t want to see Magic stumbling through commentary on NBC…or trying to coax teamwork out of Elden Campbell and Nick Van Exel on that self-centered ’93-94 squad…or…well, let’s just say “The Magic Hour” warrants no further discussion.
Basically, it’s about a legacy, and if he’d just stayed away, Magic Johnson’s legacy would be pretty much unfadeable: Did whatever his squad needed. Made his teammates better. Led by example. Played his best in big games. A winner, nothing less. Now add these to the resume: Bumbling broadcaster. Laughable late-night host. Would rather talk about assets than assists. Sorta clouds the picture, don’t it? It does. Now read this:
“My image has changed…I’ve been scarred, but I can handle that. It’s impossible to go through life without picking up a few scars along the way…My image may never be what it was, but it’ll still be a positive one.”
Magic’s words. Guess when he uttered them. After the retirement announcement? After “The Magic Hour” came and went? Nope. Try 1983. You may not remember, but Magic dealt with some serious drama early in his career. Those words appear in an autobiography he wrote back in ’83. The topic: how and why Paul Westhead got fired as the Lakers’ coach during the ’81-82 season. Magic took the blame, and he was hammered in the press for being a coach-killer, a cancer. Pat Riley took the job, and the Lakers won four championships in the next seven years. Maybe Magic didn’t get Westhead axed. Maybe he did. Either way, things worked out pretty well—for everyone except Westhead, of course.
I remember the grief Magic caught for that. I remember the flak that came when Magic and Kareem struggled to coexist in their early years together (an impetuous young guard and a larger-than-life big man clashing over team dominance in Southern California—sound familiar, young Laker fans?). I remember the ’84 Finals, a seven-game series that Boston stole from L.A., and Magic caught the blame then, too. A couple of ill-timed turnovers, a shot-clock violation and a couple of costly missed free throws, spread out over three games—all Laker losses—left him buried under criticism. I remember the newspapers using words like “choked” and “failed.” And I remember being in the car with my father, hearing him use similar words as we listened to the radio call of Game 7, when Magic coughed up the ball—twice—in the final 90 seconds of the nine-point, series-ending loss.
I remember, and yet I barely remember at all. Funny how a ton of success will help you forget a few ounces of failure. And that’s how it should be. Those seeking the ill legacy don’t have to be perfect all the time; really good most of the time will suffice. Magic was, better and more often than just about anyone else, and that should be the legacy. That’s what I want to remember.
And that’s why “Mr. Johnson doesn’t like to focus on his basketball career” sounds so strange. Because if you’re a fan, the other stuff just gets in the way. Because if it wasn’t for that phenomenal basketball career, nobody would care about the other stuff anyway. And because I don’t even know who this “Mr. Johnson” guy is. Like I said, we were calling to ask about an interview with Magic, one of the best to ever play the game. Mr. Johnson? Never heard of him.