Johnson, Magic

views updated May 23 2018

Magic Johnson


American basketball player

Had Earvin Johnson's earliest nickname stuck with him, he would be known today as "June Bug" rather than "Magic." A reference to his childhood proclivity for bouncing from basketball court to basketball court in search of a game, Johnson's later nickname gained preference when, as a high school player, his superior skills began to earn him acclaim. Magic continued to dazzle through his days at Michigan State University and in twelve years with the championship Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA). With his friendly demeanor and infectious smile, he shone as much off-court as on, becoming one of the world's best-known, and most well-loved, sports figures. Personally and professionally, he seemed unstoppable. In 1991, however, came an overwhelming test of this belief. At a November 7, 1991 press conference Johnson announced that he had contracted the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which leads to the incurable, fatal Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. True to form, Johnson has faced this obstacle head-on and with optimism. While he retired from the NBA following his announcement (returning for a brief stint in 1996), he has focused the same unyielding drive and buoyant energy he displayed on the court into numerous business ventures aimed at revitalizing largely African American areas of the nation's cities. In addition, he has become an unofficial spokesperson for HIV and AIDS awareness, promoting disease prevention measures and railing against the stigmatization of those who are afflicted. Twelve years after his announcement, Johnson still shows no signs of AIDS himself, and remains as energetic and focused as ever.

From "June Bug" to "Magic"

Earvin Johnson Jr. was born on August 14, 1959 in Lansing, Michigan, the middle of seven children. His father, Earvin Sr. worked on an assembly line at General

Motors and held a second job hauling garbage; his mother Christine worked as a janitor and cafeteria worker at a local school while taking primary responsibility for rearing the children. Johnson was expected to adopt the same tireless work ethic as his parents. "'You want five dollars Junior?'" his father would ask, as Johnson recalled in his autobiography. "'Here, take the lawn mower. There's a lot of grass in this town, and I bet you could earn that money real quick.'" When Earvin Sr. did relax, he often did so by watching basketball and critiquing the players' moves. Johnson took keen note and then hit all the courts in the neighborhood to try out what he learned. This is when his older neighbors began to call him "June Bug." All the practice paid off, and by the time he joined the team at Lansing Everett high school he was clearly destined for greatness. It was during his sensational freshman year where, in one game, he scored thirty-six points and grabbed eighteen rebounds, that Fred Stabley, Jr., a sportswriter for the Lansing State Journal decided the rising star needed a nickname. Reasoning that "Dr. J" and "Big E" were already taken, he opted for "Magic." Johnson recalls that, while the nickname gave opposing teams, and their fans, additional heckling fodder, this only fueled his drive. "The name became a challenge, and I love challenges," Johnson recalled. "The signs and the slogans only served to fire me up." Johnson was named an All-State player three times and, during his senior year, led his team to the state championship.


1959Born August 14 in Lansing, Michigan
1973Begins freshman year at Lansing Everett High School; named starter on basketball team and given nickname "Magic"
1975Leads team to Class A tournament quarterfinals, named to All-State Squad
1976Leads team to Class A semifinals, again named All-State
1977Leads team to Class A championship, named All-State for third time, enters Michigan State University on basketball scholarship
1978Leads MSU Spartans to Big Ten championship
1979Leads Spartan to NCAA championship, named tournament MVP, sets new school record for season assists, begins rivalry with Larry Bird
1979Foregoes remainder of college career to turn pro, drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round
1980Proves instrumental in Lakers' NBA tournament win, named championship series MVP
1981Son Andre is born on February 20
1987Named league MVP
1988Leads Lakers to yet another NBA championship, the first time a team wins two in a row since the Boston Celtics in 1969
1991Marries Earleatha "Cookie" Kelly in September
1991On November 7, publicly announces that he has been diagnosed with HIV and will retire from the NBA
1991Named to President Bush's National AIDS Commission on November 15
1992Johnson's Number 32 is retired by the Los Angeles Lakers
1992Wins Olympic gold medal as member of U.S. "Dream Team"
1992Son Earvin III is born on June 4
1992Resigns from National AIDS Commission, citing the government's lack of genuine interest in fighting the disease
1992Joins NBA All-Star team despite his retirement and named game MVP
1992Aborts NBA comeback after several players express fear of catching HIV from contact with Johnson
1993Founds Johnson Development Corporation
1993-94Becomes Lakers head coach for 15 games at end of season
1994Becomes minority owner of Los Angeles Lakers
1995Adopts daughter Elisa
1996Announces on January 29 that he will return to play for the Lakers
1996Retires on his "own terms" on May 14
1997Founds Magic Johnson Entertainment
1998Hosts talk show, which is canceled after two months
2002Named to Basketball Hall of Fame

Taking Off

Johnson stayed in his hometown for college, attending Michigan State University. As a freshman, he led the team to a Big Ten championship. In Johnson's sophomore year, the Spartans advanced to the 1979 NCAA Championship finals. It was in this game, against Indiana State University, that he had his first well-publicized match-up with ISU star and later Boston Celtic Larry Bird , with whom he maintained a friendly rivalry throughout his career. The Spartans won the game 75-64 and it was Johnson who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. After this stunning victory, Johnson forfeited his remaining two years of college eligibility and turned pro. He was the first pick for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 and became the team's key to winning the NBA championship that season. With star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured and unable to play in the sixth game of the finals, Johnson started at center. Scoring forty-two points and grabbing fifteen rebounds, he led his team to victory and was named tournament MVP.

Johnson's second year for the Lakers was not nearly so magical. In addition to suffering a knee injury that forced him to miss forty-six games that season, tension had begun to mount between the popular player and his teammates. When the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the NBA Championship playoffs, Johnson was largely blamed for the defeat. The fact that he subsequently signed a $25 million contract to remain with the Lakers increased the animosity, and raised the ire of fans, as did his public criticism of Lakers coach Paul Westhead, who was fired the day after Johnson asked, via the media, to be traded. Following these events, Johnson was booed on many courts, both away and at home. Ever fickle, teammates and fans began to come around when Johnson, under new coach Pat Riley , led the team to a second NBA Championship in the 1981-82 season, for which he was again named MVP. Johnson also experienced a personal roller-coaster during this time: a high school friend with whom he had a brief casual relationship announced that she was pregnant. On February 20, 1981, Johnson's son Andre was born.

After losing the championship to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983, the Lakers entered into one of the most enduring rivalries in all of professional basketball, alternating tournament wins with the Boston Celtics for the next five seasons. A second rivalry, between Johnson and Celtics star Bird, naturally built up over this time as well. While both Johnson and Bird initially lived up to the media portrayals of them as opponents off-court as well as on, exchanging glares and refusing to shake hands, the pair eventually became close friends. So close, in fact, that Johnson imagined the pair retiring at the exact same moment: "It's the seventh game of the Finals, the Lakers against the Celtics. There's one minute left in the game and score is tied. And then, suddenly, it's time to leave. Larry and I just shake hands, walk off the court, and disappear." Prior to retirement, though, Johnson credited Bird with pushing him to play his best ball. "We feed off one another, that's why we go on," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The Celtics won the first of the five-year string of championship bouts, spurring the press to, for a time, refer to Johnson as "Tragic" and his team the "Los Angeles Fakers." Johnson and his teammates turned it around the following year, however, beating the Celtics four games to two. The Lakers didn't make the final round in 1985-86, and the Celtics went on to take the title from the Houston Rockets. But the Lakers came back with a vengeance the next season, again beating the Celtics in the finals four games to two. That year, Johnson averaged 21.8 points per game, led the league in assists with 12.2 per game, and led his team to an NBA-best 65 wins. For his efforts, he was awarded his first-ever league Most Valuable Player award. He was named MVP of the tournament again that year as well. It was the last time he and Bird met each other in the NBA finals.

Awards and Accomplishments

1974-76Michigan Class A All-State Team
1976Michigan Class A Championship Team
1979NCAA Championship Team
1980NBA All-Rookie Team
1980, 1982-92NBA All-Star Team
1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88NBA Championship Team
1980, 1982, 1987MVP NBA Championship
1982All-NBA second team
1982Citizenship Award
1983-91All-NBA first team
1984Schick Pivotal Player award
1984IBM All-Around Contributions to Team Success Award
1987Player of the Year, Sporting News
1987, 1989-90League MVP
1990, 1992MVP NBA All-Star Game
1992U.S. Olympic Gold Medal
2002ROBIE Humanitarianism Award (Jackie Robinson Foundation)
2002Named to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

Life After Death

November 7, 1991, was one of those seismic Where-were-you-when-you-heard? moments in American culture. Even if you didn't follow pro sports, you knew Magicwhose last name, like Michael's and Larry's, was superfluouswas part of the holy triumvirate that had saved pro basketball. There he was, telling us, with the imprecise language that was part of his charm, that he had "attained" the AIDS virus, as if it were another goal he'd reached in a storied career: five championship rings, three MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, one deadly disease. From what information he gave us in succeeding days, it was in fact a form of attainment, the consequence of sexual encountersheterosexual encounters, Magic emphasized as rumors about his sexual orientation swirledin offices, in elevators, with multiple partners, the profane fruit of the Penthouse Forum fantasy life available to superstars.

Ten years. Michael has retired, unretired, retired and perhaps unretired again. Larry is just gone. The Lakers have fallen and risen. And Magic is still here. Millions of young people have never lived in a culture without AIDS. Almost all of us know someone who has died of the disease, but almost all of us know someone who is living with it, too. Ten years. We know everything about AIDS. We know nothing.

Source: McCallum, Jack. Sports Illustrated (August 20, 2001): 70+.

In 1988, Johnson faced another close friend across the court as the season came to a close. Playing the Detroit Pistons for the title this year, Johnson's and Piston guard Isiah Thomas 's mutual respect and deep friendship was demonstrated when the pair kissed before the opening tip-off of Game One. Ultimately, Johnson went home with the trophy, as the Lakers bested the Pistons four games to three. By this time, the star of Hollywood celebrities' favorite teamLakers fans included Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas and Michael Jacksonhad become a celebrity himself, and he found it necessary to travel with bodyguards and reside in a guarded estate due to his immense popularity. Johnson and Thomas faced each other again in the 1989 NBA Championship, but this time Thomas emerged the victor, with Johnson sitting out a portion of the final series due to an injured hamstring. Still, Johnson was awarded his second MVP award for his regular-season play. While his team did not progress to the finals the next season (although Johnson was again named league MVP), Johnson made one more championship trip in 1990, facing the Chicago Bulls. Again, he emerged disappointed, with the Bulls winning four games to one. While he did not know it at the time, this series marked the end of Johnson's NBA career.

Off-Court Battle

The fall of 1991 started out beautifully for Johnson. In September he married Earleatha "Cookie" Kelly, a longtime friend. But just a few weeks later, during a routine physical examination, the seemingly invincible ball player tested positive for HIV, the virus that leads to the incurable and fatal disease AIDS. The world as he knew it came crashing to a halt. Johnson revealed the news to the public on November 7, 1991, and announced he would be retiring from basketball. The sports world was stunned. "I didn't believe it," UCLA player Ed O'Bannon recalled in Sports Illustrated years later. "When I watched the press conference later that day, it broke my heart. It was one of the lowest moments of my life because he was my favorite player of all time. We all thought he was going to die." Both Cookie and their son, Earvin II., who was born on June 4, 1992, have repeatedly tested negative for the virus. The Johnsons adopted a daughter, Elisa in 1995. Defying many of the stereotypesand medical realitiesof living with HIV, Johnson has yet to manifest any signs of the disease. This does not mean, however, that he was immune to the prejudices often levied against those with HIV and AIDS. After he made the announcement, people jumped out of swimming pools when he jumped in, afraid they would contract the virus, he told Jet in 2002. Indeed, he abruptly aborted a 1992 NBA comeback after many players expressed fear of coming into contact with him. Johnson did, however, play on the 1992 NBA All-Star Team and was named the game's MVP.

Johnson also began channeling his still-unbridled energy into AIDS prevention and awareness efforts. Soon after he announced he was HIV-positive he established the Magic Johnson Foundation to promote HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. He briefly served on President George Bush's National AIDS Commission, but resigned on September 25, 1992, citing the government's lack of genuine interest in fighting AIDS as his reason. He still continues many of the duties he took on as a committee member, such as speaking at various AIDS

awareness events, helping to raise funds for research, and lending his words and well-recognized image to publications and public service announcements promoting precautionary measures. In one particularly bold move, Johnson has been candid about the way he contracted the disease, admitting that he often failed to practice safe sex and encouraging others to learn from his example. One byproduct of his efforts has been a growing realization that HIV and AIDS do not only affect homosexuals or people of certain races or classes. Johnson's current efforts focus on raising HIV and AIDS awareness in the Black and Latino communities

Building an Empire

Johnson has also been busy overseeing a number of business ventures, primarily aimed at revitalizing poor, largely African American urban areas and specifically targeting African American patrons. His $500 million Magic Johnson Enterprises includes shopping plazas in Las Vegas and Los Angeles; part-ownership of movie theaters in Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City; and part ownership in twenty-six Starbucks stores, with commitments to build nineteen others. True to his "do what can't be done" ethos, Johnson is the only outsider to enter into a financial partnership with Starbucks. "We always said no," Starbucks Corporation CEO Howard Schultz told Sports Illustrated. "But Magic had a vision, an idea, a genuine commitment to create a business in an underserved community that was both profitable and benevolent." Johnson attributes his business success to the same driven personality that allowed him to dazzle on-court in the face of his high school basketball hecklers. "I got turned on when people said it was all over for me," he told Sports Illustrated. "I wanted to show them I wasn't going away." Johnson's short-lived 1998 talk show met with less success and was cancelled after two months.

Johnson has not left basketball completely. In addition to a brief return to the Lakers in 1996 and a glorious stint on the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" in 1992, he formed and coached a traveling exhibition team, "Magic Johnson All-Stars" and coached his old team, the Lakers, for fifteen games during the 1993-94 season, after which he decided to move up in the ranks and become an executive with and minority owner of the team. For all he contributed to the game, he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. A decade after his whole life took such an unforeseeable shift, Johnson reflected on all he had achieved, and all he still would like to, with the trademark optimism that has been key to both his on- and off-court success and popularity. "Everything is for a reason; I don't go back," he told Sports Illustrated. "HIV happened for a reason. I'm a person who moves forward, and I continue to do it."


Address: c/o Johnson Development Company, 9100 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 710 East, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.


Magic, Viking Press, 1983.

Career Statistics

LA: Los Angeles Lakers.

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



Johnson, Earvin. Magic. New York: Viking Press, 1983

Johnson, Earvin, and William Novak. My Life. New York: Random House, 1992

Sports Stars, Series 1-4, UXL, 1994-98.


"Jackie Robinson Foundation Honors Magic Johnson, Gordon Parks, Hank Greenberg." Jet (April 8, 2002): 49-50.

"Magic Johnson, Globetrotters Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame." Jet (June 24, 2002): 48-49.

"Magic Johnson Retires Again Saying It's On His Own Terms This Time." Jet (June 3, 1996): 46.

"Magic Johnson Talks About Living 10 Years with AIDS Virus, Juggling Family and Business, the L.A. Lakers." Jet (January 7, 2002): 54.

McCallum, Jack. "Life After Death: Magic Johnson Has Pulled Off One of the Great Comebacks in Sports History, and It's Got Nothing to Do with Basketball." Sports Illustrated (August 20, 2001): 70.

Sketch by Kristin Palm

Johnson, Magic

views updated May 23 2018

Magic Johnson

Born: August 14, 1959
Lansing, Michigan

African American basketball player

Magic Johnson was one of professional basketball's most popular stars. He won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s before he was forced to retire after contracting the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a disease that destroys the body's ability to fight off infection.

Early years

Earvin Johnson Jr. was born on August 14, 1959, in Lansing, Michigan, the fourth of Earvin and Christine Johnson's seven children. His father worked at an auto factory during the day and hauled trash at night to make extra money. Earvin Jr. worked at several jobs, including helping his father, but his first love was basketball. In 1977 Johnson and his Everett High School team won the state championship. His passing and ball-handling skills won him the nickname "Magic." He then attended Michigan State University. In his second year, Michigan State won the national college basketball championship by defeating Indiana State University, a team led by future Boston Celtics star Larry Bird (1956). Johnson scored twenty-four points and was chosen Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Immediate success

Johnson was selected first in the 1979 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He became the first rookie to start in an NBA All-Star game. The Lakers went on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA championship, and Johnson became the youngest player ever to be named playoff MVP. At six feet nine inches, Johnson became the first big man to excel at point guard, a position usually reserved for smaller players. He became one of the most popular players in the league.

During the 198182 season Laker head coach Paul Westhead designed an offense that featured center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1947). The change upset Johnson, who asked to be traded. Westhead was soon replaced by Pat Riley, under whom Johnson became one of the league's best all-around players. In Johnson's first season with Riley, the Lakers won another championship, with Johnson again winning the playoff MVP award. In 1985 the Lakers won their third NBA title, defeating Bird and the Boston Celtics. The Lakers also won championships in 1987 and 1988.

During Johnson's twelve years with the Lakers, the team won five championships. He was chosen playoff MVP three times. He was a twelve-time All-Star and the 1990 All-Star game MVP. He averaged 19.7 points per game in 874 games, pulled down 6,376 rebounds, and had 1,698 steals. During the 199091 season he broke Oscar Robertson's (1938) assist record, finishing the season with a total of 9,921. In October 1996 he was named one of the fifty greatest players in the history of the NBA.

Tragic discovery

In November 1991, during a physical examination, Johnson found out that he was a carrier of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS. Johnson admitted that his lifestyle as a sports celebrity included many sexual encounters. However, he never suspected that he might contract HIV, which he thought was limited to gay, or homosexual, men (men who are attracted to other men). Doctors advised Johnson to quit basketball immediately in order to protect his health.

Johnson immediately became a voice for AIDS awareness. "I want [kids] to understand that safe sex is the way to go," Johnson told People magazine. "Sometimes we think only gay people can get it [HIV], or that it's not going to happen to me. Here I am. And I'm saying it can happen to anybody, even Magic Johnson." Johnson was appointed to the National Commission on AIDS by President George H. W. Bush (1924) but resigned to protest what he considered to be the president's lack of support for AIDS research. Johnson also coauthored What You Can Do to Prevent AIDS.

Unable to let go

In January 1992 Johnson came out of retirement to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game, scoring 25 points and being named the game's MVP. That summer Johnson went to Barcelona, Spain, as a member of the United States basketball team in the Summer Olympics. Referred to as the "Dream Team" by writers, the U.S. team, packed with NBA stars including Bird and Michael Jordan (1964), easily won the gold medal. Fans were saddened, however, because they believed the careers of both Johnson and Bird were over.

Johnson could not let go of basketball. He announced his return to the NBA shortly before the 1992 season; after five preseason games he retired again, saying he wanted to stay healthy for his family. Johnson remained active in basketball, purchasing an ownership share in the Lakers and forming a team that played games around the world to benefit charities. He became a vice-president of the Lakers and took over as head coach of the team for the end of the 199293 season. In early 1996 Johnson again returned to play for the Lakers. By May, however, he announced his retirementthis time for good.

Successful businesses

Johnson enjoyed all-star success as a businessman. He started paying attention to his money early in his career, after watching fellow teammate Abdul-Jabbar lose millions to crooked business advisers. By 1996 he had a net worth of more than one hundred million dollars. Like other star athletes, Johnson endorsed (appeared in ads giving support for) products and gave speeches for big fees. He led his Magic Johnson All-Stars around the world, playing exhibition games against foreign basketball teams for large profits. He also briefly hosted a television talk show.

One of Johnson's major investments was in large-scale property development. Among his successes were movie theaters and shopping centers in inner-city areas where no one else wanted to invest. In June 1995 Johnson opened the twelve-screen Magic Theatres in a mostly black section of Los Angeles. In 1997 Johnson opened another movie complex in Atlanta, Georgia. Magic movie houses were under construction in other cities, including Brooklyn, New York, where the historic Loews Kings Theater was restored at a cost of $30 million.

Living with HIV

In September 1991, just before Johnson learned he had HIV, he married longtime friend Earletha "Cookie" Kelly. They had a son in 1993 and adopted a daughter in 1995. Johnson also had a son from another relationship who spent the summers with him. Johnson continued to take medicine, eat right, and exercise. As recently as September 2002, his doctors said he is free of AIDS symptoms. Doctors credit Johnson's exercise habits and his use of powerful drugs; Johnson's wife Cookie has credited God, stating, "The Lord has definitely healed Earvin. Doctors think it's the medicine. We claim it in the name of Jesus."

Johnson showed no signs of slowing down. He became the owner of several Starbucks coffee shops, started his own record company (Magic Johnson Records), and purchased Fatburgers, the popular Los Angeles hamburger chain. He also continued to speak out on AIDS and raise money for research. In 2002 he was elected to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.

For More Information

Blatt, Howard. Magic! Against the Odds. New York: Pocket Books, 1996.

Frank, Steven. Magic Johnson. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Levin, Richard. Magic. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Johnson, Earvin. My Life. New York: Random House, 1992.

Johnson, Roy S. Magic's Touch. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1989.

Johnson, ‘Magic’

views updated May 14 2018

Johnson, ‘Magic’ ( Earvin) (1959– ) US professional basketball player. He won five National Basketball Association (NBA) championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987–88) with the Los Angeles Lakers and was named Most Valuable Player three times (1987, 1989, 1990). In 1991, Johnson announced he was HIV+ and retired, but he returned to win an Olympic gold medal (1992) in the US ‘Dream Team’.