Earvin Johnson was born in Lansing, Michigan, on 14 August 1959. He was from a large family, with nine brothers and sisters all competing for the attention of their parents, Earvin, Sr. and Christine, both of whom worked locally (his father worked for the General Motors corporation and his mother was a school custodian). He attended Everett High School and, upon graduation, decided to attend Michigan State University, located in nearby East Lansing. Johnson would not complete his degree, leaving MSU after two years, in 1979. Twelve years later, at the age of thirty-two, Johnson was diagnosed with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and forced to retire, prompting widespread speculation about his lifestyle and habits. He attempted to return to the career he loved so dearly on two occasions and met with intolerance from many quarters. Now aged fifty-two, he lives in California with his wife and two children, none of whom has the disease (even though his son Earvin III was born in 1992, he was not infected and his second child was adopted) and is forced to take a massive cocktail of drugs each and every day to ensure his survival.
Oh, and did I mention that in between, he was the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft, a five-time NBA champion, a three-time league MVP, a twelve-time All-Star, a three-time NBA finals MVP, a nine-time All-NBA first team selection, an Olympic Gold Medallist with the original USA Dream Team, scored 17,707 points, grabbed 6,559 rebounds, recorded 10,141 assists, and was and is a consensus selection by anyone you’d care to ask as one of the greatest basketball players of all time?
After a game in high school, where Johnson recorded 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists, a journalist for the Lansing State Journal gave him the moniker “Magic”, a name which has stuck with him ever since, even though his deeply-Christian mother felt that the name was sacrilegious. Throughout his career, both at the college and NBA levels, he famously battled against Larry Bird, of Indiana State and the Boston Celtics. Between the victories for the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 and the Detroit Pistons in 1989, there was only one year in which the Lakers or the Celtics did not win the title: the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers. The two met in three finals series’ during that time. On six occasions during that period, either the Celtics or the Lakers held the NBA’s best regular season record (since the turn of the century, only the 2000 Lakers, 2003 Spurs and 2008 Celtics have won the NBA title after achieving the best regular season record).
The Magic-Bird rivalry also extended to the All-Star game, where they battled on behalf of their conferences. Interestingly, Bird’s Eastern Conference came out victorious in the 1980 game (their first All-Star meeting), and Magic’s first All-Star triumph did not occur until 1985. The East dominated the All-Star exchanges during this period; the West won in 1987 and again in 1989 (although neither Bird nor Magic played in this game, due to injury) but then did not win until 1992, a game that would have a special resonance thanks to the appearance of the recently-retired Magic.
Thanks to ESPN, The Courtside Collective recently had the opportunity to speak with Magic. Given the pertinence of the topics of both the All-Star game and the upcoming London Olympics (with the common denominator of the Chicago Bulls London-raised forward Luol Deng), we asked Magic for his views on these topics.
TCC: I wanted to ask with the London Olympics coming even closer, fans in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK are excited their leading player, Luol Deng has been selected for the All‑Star Game this year. Do you think his participation is overdue or has he like many outstanding players have been overlooked because of the style of his play?
MAGIC JOHNSON: First of all, those who are in the NBA and those who have played in the NBA know how good Deng is. I think this year he became more explosive because he can hit the three‑point shot from outside now. So he’s always been a great defender, a great slasher, a great mid-range player, and now he’s added that three‑point shot with consistency. And he is really the key for the Bulls, because we all know that Derrick Rose was the MVP. But he needs Deng to play well and defend well because Luol has to take the best player on the other team night in and night out, and he’s done an amazing job. He’s great.
It must be great for all of you just like it’s great for us to see his growth and see his maturity, and see him just getting better and better every year. Looking forward to seeing you all of you at the Olympics. You guys should take great pride in seeing Deng play in the All‑Star Game, because he deserves it. He probably could have been in last year as well, but it’s great to see him this year.
As it turned out, Deng’s first All-Star appearance might be better remembered for what he wore pre-game rather than what he did during it. While Luol Deng may have made history by becoming the first “British” player to feature in an All-Star game, he is, as most will know, a member of the Dinka tribe from South Sudan and only came to Britain after his family fled the Second Sudanese Civil War, initially moving to Egypt and then to Brixton, London. With all the unrest in Africa – Deng’s home nation only came into existence in July 2011 – Deng wore an African t-shirt pre-game. With the NBA’s strict dress-code regulations (a cynic might suggest that in the pre-game period, the only losers might be adidas which provides all the NBA’s official gear. Adidas listed its 2010 revenue as €11.99 billion, with an operating income of €894 million and a profit of €567 million).
[audio:http://thecourtsidecollective.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Magic-Johnson-Interview-TCC.mp3|titles=ESPN Interview: Tony McGaharan speaks with Magic Johnson]
Deng commented to the BBC that “If I get fined, I’m okay. It was what I felt like doing…To me, what I did is worth it for me. It was a positive message as there’s a lot of negativity going on in the continent of Africa. I think if my parents saw it they would be very proud.”
- Deng faces possible fine for wearing this t-shirt
Of course, while Deng’s first appearance made history, it was Magic’s last All-Star appearance which proved one of the most durable images of his career. He played 29 minutes and scored 25 points, including a barrage of three-pointers. In his own words:
I think it had a great impact on the world. When you think about it for ‑‑ well, let’s recall all the things that happened. First the fans voting me in, Commissioner Stern allowing me to play, and I want to thank him. Then I have to thank Tim Hardaway for letting me start in his place. Then there was some uncertainty with players who didn’t know if they could play against me, what would happen. So then also people saying can he still play? So all of those things were factors and uncertainties in terms of before the game started.
Then once the game started, we started playing basketball, and it was fun, it was great. Then Dennis Rodman really I think he took it upon himself to show people, hey, he’s going to play hard. He’s going to play aggressive. And I think that that’s really calmed everybody down.
Then, really, the way I played and performed let people know that I could still play. Then winning the MVP, hitting those three three‑pointers in the fourth quarter just showed people, okay, Magic is back. He can play. He’s okay. Yeah, you can play against him. Nothing’s going to happen. Those type of things.
So it did a lot for the world. It did a lot for HIV and AIDS all at the same time. It did a lot for people dealing with not just HIV but anything else, that they can go on and live a productive life. So the NBA, that All‑Star Game in Orlando educated the world, and it was great therapy for me.
So I want to thank the City of Orlando and the fans that came out that day. It was so special, and it was so loud. They were cheering everything that I was doing. Even if I probably would have missed all 15, 20 shots that I took, they probably still would have been cheering, and I appreciated that.
Arguably one of the defining images of Johnson’s career – and there were many – was when he won Gold as part of the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Magic cited the influence of the Dream Team 1.0 (of course, every USA team since then has been styled as the “Dream Team”, even when their performances have been as disappointing as those at the 2004 Athens Olympics when a team featuring a young Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony “only” won the bronze medal. By this time, foreign players were actually becoming stars in the NBA; indeed the MVP award between 2004 and 2008 went to Steve Nash (twice) and Dirk Nowitzki) in bringing the game of basketball into global consciousness. He argued that:
I think the Dream Team opened the game up to the world. The world was fascinated by the play of the Dream Team. Then I think that allowed more international players to come in and enjoy the NBA basketball.
I think that now as you can see, the NBA and basketball is a world game now. So the game is much better in terms of the league and the NBA and the game of basketball is much broader now and better because of the Dream Team, and because we can all enjoy now people from around the world and those countries can enjoy the NBA as well because they have their countrymen playing in the NBA.
Of course, basketball was not new to the rest of the world. For example, in Lithuania, where basketball is the national sport, the national team won both the 1937 and 1939 Eurobasket tournaments under the influence of the “Godfather of Lithuanian basketball”, Pranas Lubinas, or Frank Lubin. Although Lithuania would be occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 – (quick WWII history) then invaded by Nazi Germany the following year, and re-occupied after the retreat of the German forces right through to its declaration of independence in 1991 – the great USSR teams of the period were always reliant on great Lithuanians like Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis who starred as the USSR won Gold at the 1988 Olympics. Lithuania certainly did not need the United States to teach it basketball. That said, Jonas Valanciunas, arguably the best player outside the NBA at the moment (although drafted by the Toronto Raptors fifth overall in the 2011 draft, Valanciunas remained with his Lietuvos Rytas team through the lockout who refused to release him when the lockout ended), has noted his admiration for Dwight Howard. Similarly, Sarunas Jasikevicius spent his teenage years at high school in Pennsylvania before playing at Maryland.
Of course, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the very concept of the “Dream Team” performing at the Olympics was highly controversial. The Olympics had traditionally been an event which marked the coming together of amateur athletes at the top of their games. Of course, with certain sports offering its stars considerably more generous compensation for their efforts than others, a balance seemed as though it had to be struck.
The Dream Team was brought together under widespread pressure – including from President George Bush, Sr. – to include American professional players. Professionals from Europe and South America already competed and, although the very notion of a professional player competing in the Olympics ran contrary to the concept of amateurism, FIBA remedied this inconsistency by permitting the stars of the NBA to take part.
Such was the publicity storm around the team that, rather than land at El Prat airport, on the outskirts of Barcelona, they landed at Reus, what one might term the “Ryanair” airport (indeed, it is a Ryanair hub) for Barcelona, located 121km away from the city. In a 2010 interview with ESPN, Charles Barkley recalled:
And what people don’t understand, we got death threats. In our hotel, you had to have a picture ID to get in there, and we went to the pool on the roof of the hotel, there was like 10 guys standing around with Uzis. So it was kind of funny, it was like: Girl in bikini; dude with an Uzi; girl in bikini; guy with Uzi. People thought we didn’t want to stay in the Olympic Village because we wanted to be big shots, but it was because we were getting death threats. They had told us this would be considered great by one of these terrorist groups if they could take out the Dream Team.
Of course, more famously, Barkley commented that he had been afraid that an Angolan player “might have drawn a spear” on him. Barkley was also dismissive of legenday Brazilian player, Oscar Schmidt, admitting that “the notion that any of us knew anything about the foreign players, we just did not.”
What many people forget is that 1992 was actually Michael Jordan’s second Olympic Gold: he had also won as part of Team USA in 1984 in Los Angeles in a team that also featured Patrick Ewing. In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, the USA team that won bronze included David Robinson, Mitch Richmond and Dan Majerle. Of course, all had yet to commence their professional careers at the time of their triumphs.
The Dream Team scored an average of 117.3 points per game and defeated its opponents by an average of 44 points per game on their way to the Gold medal. It never once called a timeout. Johnson averaged eight points per game, playing in six of the eight total games. He shot an impressive 46% from three point range (not forgetting the differences in court design between FIBA and NBA courts), although this should be viewed alongside the 87% shot by Charles Barkley who ended the tournament 7/8 from the arc, going into his MVP season of 1992-1993.
Since retiring (as with all great players, Johnson retired twice: the first time in the immediate aftermath of his announcement that he had HIV – partially a result of the intolerant attitude of the time, a result of a widespread lack of knowledge about the disease – and again in 1996 after a brief comeback where the former point guard played at power forward and averaged an impressive 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds in the last 32 games of the season), he has become a prominent businessman, with an estimated fortune that is occasionally cited as high as $800 million. Troubled by the bankruptcy of his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1987, Magic sought the advice of businessmen and began to invest his money, initially in Pepsi Cola. By the early part of the 21st century, Johnson employed some 3,000 people across the United States. Where Michael Jordan made millions (and subsequently lost many of them in a messy divorce) through selling his name, Johnson made his money through shrewd investments.
Johnson has also embarked upon an impressive philanthropic career, notably with his Magic Johnson Foundation which attempts to combat HIV, both in the United States and in Africa as well as other charitable goals. He has also been active in persuading companies to bring their brands to relatively impoverished African-American neighbourhoods across the United States: most famously he secured a Starbucks in South Central Los Angeles, an area better associated with gang violence and murder.
ESPN has recently led the way in sports documentary journalism with its unmissable series entitled 30-for-30. For example, the film Once Brothers which detailed the tragic decline in the relationship between former Yugoslavian team-mates Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic during the early 1990s as national issues soured their long-standing friendship, is a must-see for any sports fan, or student of ethno-political division. ESPN Entertainment, on 11 March, will premiere The Announcement, a documentary about Magic’s 7 November 1991 press conference at which he announced to the world that he had HIV and was retiring. It promises to be powerful viewing.
The Courtside Collective would like to thank ESPN for inviting us to speak with Magic Johnson. We would also like to thank LucasLove for giving us access to their conference facilities for the interview.