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Johnson, Earvin “Magic” 1959–

Earvin Magic Johnson 1959

Former professional basketball player, entrepreneur

At a Glance

Built Foundation Upon Skills and Family

Perfected the Passing Game

Transformed Lakers Into Champions

A True Team Player

Retired After Contracting HIV

Still Played After Retirement

Started Johnson Development Corporation

Selected writings

Sources

Earvin Magic Johnson reigned as one of the top players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for close to a decade. Brimming with youthful enthusiasm, Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships and was one of the top paid athletes in professional sports. Tall for a point guard at 69, Johnson, according to Alex Ward in a 1987 New York Times Magazine article, is a master of improvisation who defies comparison with NBA players both past and present. Ward stated: In a sport populated by ever larger, faster and more skilled athletes, there is no other playernever has there been a player quite like Johnson.

Championships seemed to follow Magic: he led Lansing Everett High School to victory at the state high school championships in Michigan and helped Michigan State University win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. Put him on a basketball court, hand him the ball and before you can blink hes passed it to a teammate whos in perfect scoring position, commented Ward in 1987. No player works as hard, or as deftly, to make other players look good. But that definition only begins to describe Magic Johnson, who at the tender age of 20, became an instant superstar, a manchild whose talent and exuberance amazed teammates and foes, and charmed fans.

Unfortunately, the life of a manchild can be fraught with danger. On November 7, 1991, Johnson stunned the world when he announced that he was retiring from basketball because he had been diagnosed as a carrier of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)an incurable, fatal disease transmitted through human blood or semen that cripples the bodys immune system. In a subsequent interview in People, Johnson claimed that he had caught the virus by messing around with too many women. Even a deadly illness cannot dull Magic Johnsons lustre, however. He became a celebrity spokesman for safe sex and was a member of former President George Bushs National AIDS Commission. Commenting on the turn his celebrity had taken so suddenly, Johnson told a Sports Illustrated correspondent, The further I go with this, the more I believe God picked me. If I didnt believe that, Im not sure how I could go on the way I have.

At a Glance

Born Earvin Johnson, Jr., on August 14, 1959, in Lansing, Ml; son of Earvin (an auto worker) and Christine (a cafeteria worker) Johnson; married Ear-leatha Cookie Kelly; children: (from a previous relationship) Andre, Earvin III, Elisa (adopted). Education: Attended Michigan State University, 1977-79.

Career: Professional basketball player with Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-92,1996, head coach, 1994, minority owner, 1996-; member of U.S. Olympic basketball team, 1992; Named to United States National AIDS Committee by President George Bush, 1992; Johnson Development Company, owner and CEO, 1992-.

Memberships: Magic Johnson Foundation.

Selected awards: Named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four playoff tournament, 1979; named MVP of NBA Championship Series, 1980, 1982, and 1987; winner of Schick Pivotal Player Award, 1984; Life Time Achievement award, Friars Club of California, 2002; Naismit Memorial Baseball Hall of Fame, 2002; Savoy Magazine, Person of the Year, 2003.

Address: Office 9100 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90212-3415.

Built Foundation Upon Skills and Family

Johnson was one of the most brilliant guards in NBA history, as his numerous honors attest. Known more for his astonishing assists than for his own scoring, Johnson excelled on the fast break and touted strong defensive pressure as the key to undercutting the scoring potential of the opposition. Johnson remarked in the New York Times Magazine: Youve got to get on your man quickly, be right there in his face as soon as he gets the ball, pressuring him, or helping someone else out with a double team. Pretty soon, they start making bad passes or taking bad shotsand you start running. Offensively, Johnson handled the ball and set up plays, reading and recognizing advantages in the ever-shifting configuration of players. His height made him a threat as an outside scorer, but he was generally recognized for his smooth passing.

Earvin Johnson, Jr., was born on August 14,1959, the sixth of ten children in a Lansing, Michigan, family. Both parents were employed; his father worked on a General Motors assembly line and his mother in a school cafeteria. Johnsons father, Earvin, Sr., often held two jobs to support the large family and would collapse from exhaustion at the end of his 16-hour day. When I was young, I didnt really think about what [my father] was doing, Johnson recalled in the Los Angeles Times, but now I understand how much he did for me and my brothers and sisters. In his rare moments of free timeusually on Sundaythe elder Johnson would watch televised basketball games with his son and give him advice on strategy.

Johnson became enthralled with basketball; neighbors nicknamed him June Bug because he was always hopping around the local court, practicing his moves before and after school. Johnson described himself in the Washington Post as an avid student of the game who could not wait to try out shots he had seen on television. I just wanted to learn to do everything I could to win, he said. In the schoolyard, the only way you can stay on the court when there are lots of people around is to keep winning. And I wanted to keep playing. All day and all night long. He also added that he was blessed with a number of essential ingredients that contribute to professional caliber play. Besides just loving the game, I had good coaches early, good size, good parents, everything I needed.

Perfected the Passing Game

Johnson made his mark early at Lansing Everett High School. He led his team to the Class A quarterfinals as a sophomore. The following year Everett progressed to the semi-finals, and as a senior Johnson helped the team win the Class A championship. After a game in which the three-time All-State selection scored 36 points and had 18 rebounds, a local sportswriter dubbed him Magic Johnson; the nameand the image of supernatural prowessstuck. Johnson, however, soon learned that his teammates resented the grandstanding, and he perfected the passing game that would come to be his trademark.

Choosing Michigan State University over the University of Michigan, Johnson led the Spartans to the 1977-78 Big Ten championship as a freshman. The following yearas a sophomoreJohnson shattered a school record with his 269 assists, and the Spartans advanced to the 1979 NCAA Final Four; the championship game on March 26 matched Johnson with the superb Indiana University forward Larry Bird. The Spartans won, 75-64. Bird had been named College Player of the Year, but Johnson won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in the championships. Bird was drafted and signed by the Boston Celtics, while Johnson accepted a $600,000 offer from the Lakers.

Johnson was enthusiastic and ebullient as he arrived at the Los Angeles training camp. His confidence and high spirits were infectious, and his older teammates quickly warmed to him. The media also embraced him; he was always affable and ready to interview or clown in front of the camera. Away from the arena, however, he sometimes felt intimidated. Being young and out of his element in a daunting city, he was most at home on the court, and his play reflected it. The previously lackluster Lakers were transformed into immediate contenders who finished first in their division and then brought home their first world championship since 1972.

Transformed Lakers Into Champions

Johnsons rookie statistics broke numerous Lakers records, including a .530 shooting percentage, 563 assists, a free-throw percentage of .810, and an average of 18 points a game. His outstanding accomplishment of that season remains his performance in the sixth game of the 1980 NBA finals. With teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by an injury, Johnson started at center and played each position on the court. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, had seven assists, three steals, and one blocked shot. He was named series MVP and won wide acclaim. Washington Post reporter Dave Remnick called Johnsons performance the most extraordinary show in playoff history. Ironically, however, it was Bird who earned the Rookie of the Year award.

If Johnsons rookie season with the Lakers seemed a fairy tale of sorts, his second season had all the earmarks of a nightmare. First, incurring a serious knee injury, he missed 46 games. Then, his return to the lineup occasioned resentment and envy among his teammates. The Lakers did make the playoffs and were heavily favored to oust the Houston Rockets, but instead they were beaten badly. Johnson absorbed much of the blame for the loss; he was, in fact, haunted by it through the off-season. The tension between him and his teammates only increased when Johnson secured an unprecedented $25 million, 25-year contract in June of 1981. Fellow Lakers, including Jabbar, wondered aloud if the deal would give Johnson a say in the management of the team.

Some months thereafter friction developed between Johnson and then-head coach Paul Westhead over Westheads changes in strategy. An angry Johnson spoke his mind publicly and asked to be traded. West-head was fired the next day. To many observers, Johnson had become a spoiled prima donna holding undue influence in the Lakers front office. He was booed even in Los Angelesbut only briefly, because in 1982, under new coach Pat Riley, the Lakers advanced to, and won, the NBA championship for the second time in three years. Johnson, however, once again winning series MVP, was a far different person from the effervescent rookie he had been. He played with equal determination, but he was subdued and sobered by his experiences with club politics.

The Lakers again advanced to the NBA championship series in 1985. This time they faced off against the Boston Celtics, a traditional rival led by Bird. Sports Illustrated contributor David Halberstam observed of Johnson and Bird: Slowly, inevitably, as they raised their teams to the highest professional level, as their teams became perennial challengers for the title, the connection between them, which had once been hyped and artificial, gradually became real. In a league in which expansion had ruined traditional rivalries, their rivalry and that of their teams remained genuine, and they reached the rare point where rivalry turns into respect and even affection.

A True Team Player

Johnson himself dates this moment of dawning affection to a time when he and Bird made a television commercial together. It was the first time they had ever really talked, and they compared notes eagerly. Johnson once claimed that he would retire from the sport when Bird did. Larrys going to go first, and Im going to go right after him, Johnson commented in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. We feed off one another, thats why we go on. Thats why we always want to top each other.

In terms of team play, the honors are Johnsonsthe Lakers beat the Celtics in two of three championships from 1985 to 1987. Much has been made of the relative ability of the two men, and some suggested that Johnson was underestimated because of his race. Halberstam claimed Bird is perceived as the lunchbox player who only by a diet of hard work and high intelligence has created himself as a great basketball player, whereas what is seen of Johnson is simply his natural skills, not the endless hours spent honing those skills and the intelligence to employ them constantly in making split-second decisions. Johnson responded to such comparisons off the court by acknowledging that racial stereotypes do influence those who write and speak about him. On the court he let his play serve as testimony to his keen perception of the game.

The Lakers won the NBA championship in 1985, 1987, and 1988. Inevitably, perhaps, Johnson became as big a star in Los Angeles as many a motion picture actor. Hollywoods biggest namesJack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, and Michael Jackson, to name a fewwere known to seek Johnson out; the player was often amazed at the politeness with which major film and television luminaries would greet him. It always surprises me when that happens, when people take to me like that, he told the New York Times Magazines Ward in 1987, because Im in awe of them, and I realize theyre in awe of me.

As an NBA icon Johnson shared many of the privileges and endured the same fame-related problems that plague movie stars. Traveling with bodyguards, living in a fence-enclosed, guarded estate, he found himself severely restricted by the constant crush of adoring fans. People see the glitter and say to themselves, If only I could be Magic for a day, Johnson reflected in the Detroit Free Press. I doubt if they could handle it, even for only a day. The glitter is part of it, but so are the people with schemes, the thieves running scams; so are the people who want to get so close that it becomes scary. There is never a normal day.

Retired After Contracting HIV

Being a celebrity carries with it a number of drawbacks, of which the former player became a victim. Johnson, who claimed he has never had a homosexual experience, admitted that his lifestyle as a professional basketball player included heterosexual promiscuity. Never suspecting that he might be a carrier of HIVinitially thought to be limited to homosexual menhe found out he had the virus during a routine physical examination for an insurance policy sought by the Los Angeles Lakers on their high-paid superstar.

Only months before, in September of 1991, Johnson had wed longtime girlfriend Earleatha Cookie Kelly, who was in the early stages of pregnancy. The honeymoon was brief indeed. By the first week of November, Johnson was stunned to discover the results of his routine blood test: he carried the virus that leads to AIDS, an incurable and terminal illness. The Lakers team physician, Dr. Michael Mellman, advised Johnson to quit basketball immediately in order to safeguard his threatened immune system. Johnson shared his tragic discovery with his wife and his closest friendsIsiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, Larry Bird, Pat Riley, and talk show host Arsenio Hall.

By noon on November 7,1991, rumors had already hit the radio and television airwaves in Los Angeles. Johnson announced a press conference, but he first told the other players on the Lakers team. Breaking the news to my teammates was the most emotional experience of this entire ordeal, Johnson told a People correspondent. Everyone was crying, including me. Later, a composed Magic Johnson announced to the American people that he was HIV-positive.

Johnsons admission of his illness stunned the entire world. Overnight the likeable player became a spokesman for AIDS awareness, and he is one of the best known public figure on the National AIDS Commission. I just want to say that Ill miss playing, Johnson expressed in People, and will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus. I want [kids] to understand that safe sex is the way to go. Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, or that its not going to happen to me. Here I am. And Im saying it can happen to anybody, even Magic Johnson.

Still Played After Retirement

At first Johnson thought he might never play basketball again. Instead, he decided to keep himself in shape in an effort to counter the effects of the virus. Johnson caused a stir when he arrived to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game. Some fellow players doubted that he could keep the pace after so many months out of the game. Othersincluding several Lakersthought it was unfair to allow Johnson, a retired player, to participate in the event. All controversy aside, Johnson so dominated the 42nd NBA All-Star Game that Sports Illustrateds Jack McCallum called the contest The Earvin Johnson Consciousness Raising Love-In and added, Bank on this: Youll never see anything like it again. The player scored 25 points that the evening, pulled down five rebounds, and made two steals. As McCallum put it, Johnson special-delivered his intended messagethat a person afflicted with the AIDS virus can be exceedingly productive.

The summer of 1992 was momentous for Johnson in two very important ways. The first, and perhaps most important, was the birth of his son Earvin Johnson III in June. Not only were there no complications with the birth, but the baby tested negative for the HIV virus, a fear that both Cookie and Johnson had harbored since learning of Johnsons disease. With his son healthy and his wife properly recovering from birth, Johnson was able to return to basketball for a second time since his retirement as he attended the 1992 Summer Olympic games. Johnson felt himself fortunate to be included in the first ever Olympics where professional basketball players were allowed to compete in the Mens Basketball event, and the United States Dream Team, made up of the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, and David Robinson, destroyed the competition, winning all eight of their games and securing a gold medal for the United States in the event.

1992, however, would not be the last time that Johnson played professional basketball. In January of 1996, Johnson decided to try once again to play professional basketball and rejoined the Lakers, where he still had a contract. He had tried to rejoin the NBA once before during the 1993-94 season, but during a preseason game he injured himself and many players refused to continue the game on account of the blood from Johnsons injury possibly infecting another player. Johnson retired once again, but worked to promote awareness of AIDS within the NBA and other professional sports, so that when he returned to the NBA in 1996, it was a much more welcome and accepted comeback. Johnson only played the end of the 1995-96 season, retiring for a third time after the Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets in order to focus more on keeping himself healthy as well as fostering his budding business ventures.

Started Johnson Development Corporation

Many sports analysts and fans wondered what Johnson would do once he had retired from basketball, but it was a question that Johnson had already begun to answer before 1991. In 1990 Johnson purchased the Pepsi-Cola distribution plant in Forestville, Maryland, with the help of Black Enterprise publisher, Earl G. Graves. To many people, taking on a sports star as a business partner would be risky, but as Graves said in an interview with Black Enterprise, If I had any reservations early, they were overcome by the nature of his personality. It was clear that he really wanted to be a businessman and someone that others would take seriously. Johnson lived up to Graves image of him when he went on to start Johnson Development Corporation (JDC) in 1992. JDCs first venture was to bring well known movie theaters into minority communities where few theaters existed. Partnering with Loews Cineplex Entertainment, JDC began to build Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Harlem, and the results were phenomenal. By 1998 the revenues from just three of the theaters were approaching $20 million. Lawrence J. Ruisi, the president and CEO of Loews Cineplex Entertainment was very impressed by his working relationship with Johnson, saying in an interview with Black Enterprise, When you sit down and talk to him, what Earvin displays is the ability to listen and learn. He didnt walk into this with notions that he knew everything there was to know about running a movie theater.

Over the next few years, Johnson would continue to expand JDC, creating five separate companies under the JDC parent company, including JDC Las Vegas, which ran a large retail shopping mall in the Las Vegas area, and Johnson/MacFarlane, which owns numerous shopping complexes in the Los Angles area. In 1998 Johnson met with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and much like his pitch to Loews Cineplex Entertainment, suggested moving franchises of the popular coffee shop into inner city locations where more minority communities would have access to them. After what Johnson had been able to do with his Magic Johnson Cinemas, it did not take much convincing to get Schultz on board. By 1999 Starbucks had opened eight stores with the help of JDC in inner city and urban locations. Johnson was able to broker a similar deal with the restaurant chain T.G.I. Fridays which also began opening franchises with JDC in 1999.

By 2002 JDC was moving in a variety of directions, working with other restaurant chains such as Fatburger, opening a series of 24 hour Magic Johnson Sports Clubs, and even dipping into the movie making business. Johnson was the executive producer of the movie Brown Sugar, which came out in 2002 and hopes to take JDC into contracts to produce films and television shows for Black Entertainment Television. He is also working in conjunction with MTV to produce Whos Got Game, a reality show in which street-basketball players compete for money and other prizes. Many critics have scoffed at the idea of Johnson working in the entertainment industry after Johnsons involvement with a short lived talk show on the Fox Network. Running for only a few months, The Magic Hour failed to attract viewers and was panned by most critics. Johnson, however, has realized that he rushed into his show on Fox and that he needed to change his tactics as he reintroduced himself into the world of film and television. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, Im going to learn the business first, and then I want to branch off and do my own things. I want to do it right and make quality films.

It is anybodys guess in to what area of business Johnson will take JDC next, just as it is hard to nail down in which direction Johnson will take his own personal ventures. In a People article in 2002, Johnson speculated that he might run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2005 saying People want me to run. Im going to take my time to think about it. Many critics are concerned with a choice like this for it will be the first time ever that a candidate with the HIV virus has ever run for a major political office, yet as Johnson pointed out, his doctors have said that the HIV levels in his body have been virtually undetectable since 1997, and according to Johnson in People, One thing about me is that I have unbelievable stamina, especially at the age of 42. Johnson has come a long way since his early prima donna days as an NBA rookie all-star, and his drive to accept new challenges in the face of adversity assure that the nickname of Magic is still well deserved.

Selected writings

(With Richard Levin) Magic (autobiography), Viking, 1983.

(With Roy S. Johnson) Magics Touch: From Fast Breaks to Fundamentals with Basketballs Most Exciting Player, Addison-Wesley, 1989.

(With William Novak) My Life, Random House, 1992.

(With William Novak) What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, Times Books, 1992.

Sources

Books

The Complete Marquis Whos Who, Marquis Whos Who, 2003.

Periodicals

Associated Press, January 30, 2003.

Black Enterprise, February 1992; May 1999.

Business Wire, September 27, 1999; October 22, 2002.

Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1980.

Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1986.

Detroit News and Free Press, November 9, 1991.

Esquire, February 1992.

Essence, March 1992.

Hollywood Reporter, July 1, 2002, p. 6.

Interview, January 1992.

Jet, December 23, 1991; March 30, 1992; February 6, 1995; April 21, 1997.

Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1987.

Newsweek, November 18, 1991; December 23, 1991; February 12, 1996; June 15, 1998.

New York Times, December 2, 1991; March 4, 1992; March 11, 1992; March 19, 1992; April 21, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, December 6, 1987.

People, November 25, 1991; December 30, 1991; May 20, 2002.

Playboy, March 1992.

PR Newswire, January 29, 2003.

Savoy, February 2003.

Sports Illustrated, May 13, 1985; June 29, 1987; November 18, 1991; January 20, 1992; February 17, 1992; June 15, 1992.

U.S. News & World Report, November 18, 1991; November 25, 1991.

Wall Street Journal, April 16, 1992.

Washington Post, May 31, 1984.

On-line

Earvin Johnson, Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (May 5, 2003).

Mark Kram and Ralph G. Zerbonia

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Johnson, Earvin “Magic” 1959–

Earvin Magic Johnson 1959

Former professional basketball player

At a Glance

Perfected the Passing Game

Transformed Lakers Into Champions

A True Team Player

Retired After Contracting HIV

Hoped to Return to the NBA

Selected writings

Sources

Earvin Magic Johnson reigned as one of the top players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for close to a decade. Brimming with youthful enthusiasm, Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships and was one of the top paid athletes in professional sports. Tall for a point guard at 69, Johnson, according to Alex Ward in a 1987 New York Times Magazine article, is a master of improvisation who defies comparison with NBA players both past and present. Ward stated: In a sport populated by ever larger, faster and more skilled athletes, there is no other playernever has there been a player quite like Johnson.

Championships seemed to follow Magic: he led Lansing Everett High School to victory at the state high school championships in Michigan and helped Michigan State University win the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. Put him on a basketball court, hand him the ball and before you can blink hes passed it to a teammate whos in perfect scoring position, commented Ward in 1987. No player works as hard, or as deftly, to make other players look good. But that definition only begins to describe Magic Johnson, who at the tender age of 20, became an instant superstar, a manchild whose talent and exuberance amazed teammates and foes, and charmed fans.

Unfortunately, the life of a manchild can be fraught with danger. On November 7,1991, Johnson stunned the world when he announced that he was retiring from basketball because he had been diagnosed as a carrier of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)an incurable, fatal disease transmitted through human blood or semen that cripples the bodys immune system. In a subsequent interview in People, Johnson claimed that he had caught the virus by messing around with too many women. Even a deadly illness cannot dull Magic Johnsons lustre, however. He has become a celebrity spokesman for safe sex and a member of the President George Bushs National AIDS Commission. Commenting on the turn his celebrity has taken so suddenly, Johnson told a Sports Illustrated correspondent, The further I go with this, the more I believe God picked me. If I didnt believe that, Im not sure how I could go on the way I have.

Johnson was one of the most brilliant guards in NBA history, as his numerous honors attest. Known more for his

At a Glance

Born Earvin Johnson, Jr., August 14, 1959, in Lansing, MI; son of Earvin (an auto worker) and Christine (a cafeteria worker) Johnson; married Earletha Cookie Kelly; children: (from a previous relationship) Andre, (from first marriage) Earvin III. Education: Attended Michigan State University, 1977-79.

Professional basketball player with Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-92; member of U.S. Olympic basketball team, 1992; writer. Named to United States National AIDS Committee by President George Bush, 1992.

Awards: Named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four playoff tournament, 1979; named MVP of NBA Championship Series, 1980, 1982, and 1987; winner of Schick Pivotal Player Award, 1984; selected to All-NBA first team, 1983-88; named MVP of NBA (regular season), Sporting News Player of the Year (voting by peers), and American Express/NBA Man of the Year (voting by fans) for charity and community service work, all 1987.

Addresses: c/o Los Angeles Lakers, 3900 West Manchester Blvd., P.O. Box 10, Inglewood, CA 90306.

astonishing assists than for his own scoring, Johnson excelled on the fast break and touted strong defensive pressure as the key to undercutting the scoring potential of the opposition. Johnson remarked in the New York Times Magazine: Youve got to get on your man quickly, be right there in his face as soon as he gets the ball, pressuring him, or helping someone else out with a double team. Pretty soon, they start making bad passes or taking bad shotsand you start running. Offensively, Johnson handled the ball and set up plays, reading and recognizing advantages in the ever-shifting configuration of players. His height made him a threat as an outside scorer, but he was generally recognized for his smooth passing.

Sports Illustrated writer Bruce Newman observed in the mid-1980s that when Johnson is in tune with the rhythm of the game, he can turn any play into a riff of beautiful improvisation. If you are open, Magic will get you the ball, Chicago Tribune columnist David Israel noted in 1980. He may not be looking your way, but that is no problem. He will throw the ball over his shoulder or between his legswhile he is running full speed in the other direction. Or Magic will make the impossible shot at the buzzer appear routine. Or he will flash an arm out of nowhere to steal a pass. Lakerss former coach Pat Riley told Ward: Johnson will read and recognize whats needed, and then hell do it.

Earvin Johnson, Jr., was born on August 14, 1959, the sixth of ten children in a Lansing, Michigan, family. Both parents were employed; his father worked on a General Motors assembly line and his mother in a school cafeteria. Johnsons father, Earvin, Sr., often held two jobs to support the large family and would collapse from exhaustion at the end of his 16-hour day. When I was young, I didnt really think about what [my father] was doing, Johnson recalled in the Los Angeles Times, but now I understand how much he did for me and my brothers and sisters. In his rare moments of free timeusually on Sundaythe elder Johnson would watch televised basketball games with his son and give him advice on strategy.

Johnson became enthralled with basketball; neighbors nicknamed him June Bug because he was always hopping around the local court, practicing his moves before and after school. Johnson described himself in the Washington Post as an avid student of the game who could not wait to try out shots he had seen on television. I just wanted to learn to do everything I could to win, he said. In the schoolyard, the only way you can stay on the court when there are lots of people around is to keep winning. And I wanted to keep playing. All day and all night long. He also added that he was blessed with a number of essential ingredients that contribute to professional caliber play. Besides just loving the game, I had good coaches early, good size, good parents, everything I needed.

Perfected the Passing Game

Johnson made his mark early at Lansing Everett High School. He led his team to the Class A quarterfinals as a sophomore. The following year Everett progressed to the semi-finals, and as a senior Johnson helped the team win the Class A championship. After a game in which the three-time All-State selection scored 36 points and had 18 rebounds, a local sportswriter dubbed him Magic Johnson; the nameand the image of supernatural prowessstuck. Johnson, however, soon learned that his teammates resented grandstanding, and he perfected the passing game that would come to be his trademark.

Choosing Michigan State University over the University of Michigan, Johnson led the Spartans to the 1977-78 Big Ten championship as a freshman. The following yearas a sophomoreJohnson shattered a school record with his 269 assists, and the Spartans advanced to the 1979 NCAA Final Four; the championship game on March 26 matched Johnson with the superb Indiana University forward Larry Bird. The Spartans won, 75-64. Bird had been named College Player of the Year, but Johnson won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in the championships. Bird was drafted and signed by the Boston Celtics, while Johnson accepted a $600,000 offer from the Lakers.

Johnson was enthusiastic and ebullient as he arrived at the Los Angeles training camp. His confidence and high spirits were infectious, and his older teammates quickly warmed to him. The media also embraced him; he was always affable and ready to interview or clown in front of the camera. Away from the arena, however, he sometimes felt intimidated. Being young and out of his element in a daunting city, he was most at home on the court, and his play reflected it. The previously lackluster Lakers were transformed into immediate contenders who finished first in their division and then brought home their first world championship since 1972.

A formidable offensive player, Johnson surpasses a San Antonio Spurs defender in 1988.

Transformed Lakers Into Champions

Johnsons rookie statistics broke numerous Lakers records, including a .530 shooting percentage, 563 assists, a free-throw percentage of .810, and an average of 18 points a game. His outstanding accomplishment of that season remains his performance in the sixth game of the 1980 NBA finals. With teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined by an injury, Johnson started at center and played each position on the court. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, had 7 assists, 3 steals, and 1 blocked shot. He was named series MVP and won wide acclaim. Washington Post reporter Dave Remnick called Johnsons performance the most extraordinary show in playoff history. Ironically, however, it was Bird who earned the Rookie of the Year award.

If Johnsons rookie season with the Lakers seemed a fairy tale of sorts, his second season had all the earmarks of a nightmare. First, incurring a serious knee injury, he missed 46 games. Then, his return to the lineup occasioned resentment and envy among his teammates. The Lakers did make the playoffs and were heavily favored to oust the Houston Rockets, but instead they were beaten badly. Johnson absorbed much of the blame for the loss; he was, in fact, haunted by it through the off-season. The tension between him and his teammates only increased when Johnson secured an unprecedented $25 million, 25-year contract in June of 1981. Fellow Lakers, including Jabbar, wondered aloud if the deal would give Johnson a say in the management of the team.

Some months thereafter friction developed between Johnson and then-head coach Paul Westhead over Westheads changes in strategy. An angry Johnson spoke his mind publicly and asked to be traded. Westhead was fired the next day. To many observers, Johnson had become a spoiled prima donna holding undue influence in the Lakers front office. He was booed even in Los Angelesbut only briefly, because in 1982, under new coach Pat Riley, the Lakers advanced to, and won, the NBA championship for the second year in a row. Johnson, however, once again winning series MVP, was a far different person from the effervescent rookie he had been. He played with equal determination, but he was subdued and sobered by his experiences with club politics.

The Lakers again advanced to the NBA championship series in 1985. This time they faced off against the Boston Celtics, a traditional rival led by Bird. Sports Illustrated contributor David Halberstam observed of Johnson and Bird: Slowly, inevitably, as they raised their teams to the highest professional level, as their teams became perennial challengers for the title, the connection between them, which had once been hyped and artificial, gradually became real. In a league in which expansion had ruined traditional rivalries, their rivalry and that of their teams remained genuine, and they reached the rare point where rivalry turns into respect and even affection.

A True Team Player

Johnson himself dates this moment of dawning affection to a time when he and Bird made a television commercial together. It was the first time they had ever really talked, and they compared notes eagerly. Johnson once claimed that he would retire from the sport when Bird did. Larrys going to go first, and Im going to go right after him, Johnson commented in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. We feed off one another, thats why we go on. Thats why we always want to top each other.

In terms of team play, the honors are Johnsonsthe Lakers beat the Celtics in two of three championships from 1985 to 1987. Much has been made of the relative ability of the two men, and some suggested that Johnson was underestimated because of his race. Halberstam claimed Bird is perceived as the lunchbox player who only by a diet of hard work and high intelligence has created himself as a great basketball player, whereas what is seen of Johnson is simply his natural skills, not the endless hours spent honing those skills and the intelligence to employ them constantly in making split-second decisions. Johnson responded to such comparisons off the court by acknowledging that racial stereotypes do influence those who write and speak about him. On the court he let his play serve as testimony to his keen perception of the game.

The Lakers won the NBA championship in 1985, 1987, and 1988. Inevitably, perhaps, Johnson became as big a star in Los Angeles as many a motion picture actor. Hollywoods biggest namesJack Nicholson, Michael Douglas, and Michael Jackson, to name somewere known to seek Johnson out; the player was often amazed at the politeness with which major film and television luminaries would greet him. It always surprises me when that happens, when people take to me like that, he told the New York Times Magazines Ward in 1987, because Im in awe of them, and I realize theyre in awe of me.

As an NBA icon Johnson shared many of the privileges and endured the same fame-related problems that plague movie stars. Traveling with bodyguards, living in a fence-enclosed, guarded estate, he found himself severely restricted by the constant crush of adoring fans. People see the glitter and say to themselves, If only I could be Magic for a day, Johnson reflected in the Detroit Free Press. I doubt if they could handle it, even for only a day. The glitter is part of it, but so are the people with schemes, the thieves running scams; so are the people who want to get so close that it becomes scary. There is never a normal day.

Retired After Contracting HIV

Being a celebrity carries with it a number of drawbacks, of which the former player became a victim. Johnson, who claims he has never had a homosexual experience, admitted that his lifestyle as a professional basketball player included heterosexual promiscuity. Never suspecting that he might be a carrier of HIVinitially thought to be limited to homosexual menhe found out he had the virus during a routine physical examination for an insurance policy sought by the Los Angeles Lakers on their high-paid superstar.

Only months before, in September of 1991, Johnson had wed longtime friend Earletha Cookie Kelly, who was in the early stages of pregnancy. The honeymoon was brief indeed. By the first week of November, Johnson was stunned to discover the results of his routine blood test: he carried the virus that leads to AIDS, an incurable and terminal illness. The Lakers team physician, Dr. Michael Mellman, advised Johnson to quit basketball immediately in order to safeguard his threatened immune system. Johnson shared his tragic discovery with his wife and his closest friendsIsiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, Larry Bird, Pat Riley, and talk show host Arsenio Hall.

By noon on November 7, 1991, rumors had already hit the radio and television airwaves in Los Angeles. Johnson announced a press conference, but he first told the other players on the Lakers team. Breaking the news to my teammates was the most emotional experience of this entire ordeal, Johnson told a People correspondent. Everyone was crying, including me. Later, a composed Magic Johnson announced to the American people that he was HIV-positive.

Johnsons admission of his illness stunned the entire world. Overnight the likeable player became a spokesman for AIDS awareness, and he is certainly the best known public figure on the National AIDS Commission. I just want to say that Ill miss playing, Johnson expressed in People, and will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus. I want [kids] to understand that safe sex is the way to go. Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, or that its not going to happen to me. Here I am. And Im saying it can happen to anybody, even Magic Johnson.

Hoped to Return to the NBA

At first Johnson thought he might never play basketball again. Instead, he decided to keep himself in shape in an effort to counter the effects of the virus. Johnson caused a stir when he arrived to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game. Some fellow players doubted that he could keep the pace after so many months out of the game. Othersincluding several Lakersthought it was unfair to allow Johnson, a retired player, to participate in the event. All controversy aside, Johnson so dominated the 42nd NBA All-Star Game that Sports Illustrateds Jack McCallum called the contest The Earvin Johnson Consciousness Raising Love-In and added, Bank on this: Youll never see anything like it again. The player scored 25 points that the evening, pulled down five rebounds, and made two steals. As McCallum put it, Johnson special-delivered his intended messagethat a person afflicted with the AIDS virus can be exceedingly productive.

Johnsons number was retired in an emotional ceremony at the Los Angeles Forum early in 1992. Nevertheless, Magic was hoping he still had a future in basketball. He had plans to play with the U.S. Olympic team in the summer of 1992, and after thatif his health was goodhe would seek a return to the NBA court. The always-optimistic Johnson believes that the right diet and workout program might help him to survive until a cure for AIDS can be found. I dont wake up in the morning and think that Im going to get AIDS, he declared in Sports Illustrated. I dont dream bad dreams about it. If I did, Id be giving in to the negativity. When I dream, its usually a dream that Im still playing basketball. Ive always been this way, thinking positive, with a bright outlook on life. Since this has happened to me, Ive met dozens of people who are living with this thing.

Johnson is still the picture of health and vitality, but he cannot completely ignore the implications of his diagnosis. The basketball champion confessed, according to a 1991 Jet article, that he does have fears about a life cut short by AIDS. The only thing I regret about leaving this earth is the fact that I wont see my baby grow to be old, he said. I wont be able to spend the rest of my life with my wife. Those are the things I regret.

Selected writings

(With Richard Levin) Magic (autobiography), Viking, 1983. What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, Random House, 1992.

Sources

Black Enterprise, February 1992.

Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1980.

Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1986.

Detroit News and Free Press, November 9, 1991.

Esquire, February 1992.

Essence, March 1992.

Interview, January 1992.

Jet, December 23, 1991; March 30, 1992.

Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1987.

Newsweek, November 18, 1991; December 23, 1991.

New York Times, December 2, 1991; March 4, 1992; March 11, 1992; March 19, 1992; April 21, 1992.

New York Times Magazine, December 6, 1987.

People, November 25, 1991; December 30, 1991.

Playboy, March 1992.

Sports Illustrated, May 13, 1985; June 29, 1987; November 18, 1991; January 20, 1992; February 17, 1992.

U.S. News&World Report, November 18, 1991; November 25, 1991.

Wall Street Journal, April 16, 1992.

Washington Post, May 31, 1984.

Mark Kram

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"Johnson, Earvin “Magic” 1959–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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