Joining the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association in 1979, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr. (born 1959) became one of basketball's most popular stars.
In November 1991, Magic Johnson stunned the sportsworld with his announcement that he was infected with the human immune deficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes the disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Johnson announced that he was retiring from professional basketball but returned in 1992 and again in 1996. He turned his enthusiasm and leadership skills to business. Among his successes, he developed movie theaters and shopping malls in poor and neglected sections of large cities where no one else would invest.
Johnson was born in 1959 in Lansing, Michigan. He first played organized basketball at Everett High School. In 1977 Johnson and the Everett team won the Michigan state high school championship. Johnson then attended Michigan State University. As a sophomore, he averaged 17.1 points per game and was named an All-American. In 1979 Michigan State won the national collegiate championship by defeating Indiana State University, a team led by future Boston Celtics star Larry Bird. Johnson scored 24 points and was chosen Most Valuable Player (MVP).
Johnson was selected first in the 1979 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. In his first game for the Lakers he scored 26 points. He then became the first rookie to start in an NBA All-Star game. The Lakers won the 1979-1980 Pacific Division title and went on to play the Philadelphia 76ers for the championship. The Lakers defeated the 76ers for the NBA title, and Johnson became the youngest player ever to be named MVP of the playoffs.
Transformed Lakers into Champions
At 6 feet 9 inches, Johnson became the first big man to dominate play at point guard, a position usually reserved for smaller players. His passing, dribbling skills, and ballhandling technique won him the nickname "Magic." His magnetic personality made him one of the most popular players in the league.
During the 1981-1982 season Laker head coach Paul Westhead designed an offense that focused around center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The change upset Johnson, and he asked to be traded, a move that angered some Laker fans who felt that Johnson was selfish. Westhead was replaced by Pat Riley, who stressed the role of the point guard in his offense. Under Riley, Johnson matured into one of the best all-around players in the league. In his first season with Riley, Johnson had more than 700 rebounds and 700 assists, the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to do so. Johnson was again named MVP of the playoffs.
In 1985 the Lakers won their third NBA title, defeating the Boston Celtics and Larry Bird. The sports media liked to refer to the matchup between Bird and Johnson, but Johnson was a guard and Bird a forward. During that same season, Johnson averaged 23.9 points per game, 5 points above his career average. That season he became the first guard in league history to be voted MVP of the regular season. In 1987 the Lakers again defeated the Celtics for the championship, and Johnson was named MVP of the series.
During his 12 years with the Lakers beginning in 1979, John's team went to the playoffs eight times and won five championship titles. Johnson was chosen playoff MVP three times. He was a 12-time All-Star and the 1990 All-Star games' MVP. He scored a total of 17,239 points in 874 games, averaging 19.7 per game. He displayed his defensive skills by pulling down 6,376 rebounds and making 1,698 steals. During the 1990-1991 season he broke Oscar Robertson's assist record with 9,888, finishing the season with a total of 9,921. Not surprisingly, in October 1996, he was named one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA.
Retires after Contracting AIDS
In November 1991, during a routine physical examination for an insurance policy, Johnson found out that he was a carrier of the HIV virus. Johnson admitted that his lifestyle as a sports celebrity included extensive heterosexual promiscuity. However, he never suspected that he might contact HIV, which he thought was limited to homosexual men. The Lakers team physician advised Johnson to quit basketball immediately in order to safeguard his threatened immune system. Johnson shared his discovery with the other players on the Laker team, then announced to the American people that he was HIV-positive.
Johnson's admission stunned his fans. Overnight the likeable player became a spokesman for AIDS awareness. "I want [kids] to understand that safe sex is the way to go, Johnson told People. 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." President George Bush appointed Johnson to the National Commission on AIDS, but he resigned to protest what he considered to be the president's lack of support for AIDS research. Johnson continued to speak out and literally raised millions for research to combat the disease. He founded the Magic Johnson Foundation for HIV/AIDS education and coauthored What You Can Do To Prevent AIDS.
Retirement, Return, Retirement, and Return
In January 1992, two months after he had retired, Johnson was among the leaders in voting for the 1992 NBA All-Star game. He came out of retirement to play in the game, scoring 25 points, with nine assists, in 29 minutes. There was little surprise when Johnson was named the game's MVP.
In the summer of 1992, Johnson went to Barcelona, Spain, as a member of the United States' basketball team in the 25th Summer Olympics. Dubbed the "Dream Team," by sports journalists, the American entry also included NBA stars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullen, and Duke University's Christian Laettner. The Dream Team easily won the gold medal. Fans were saddened, however, because they believed that the careers of both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were over.
But Magic hoped that he still could have a future in basketball. He announced his return to the NBA shortly before the 1992 season began, but only played in five preseason games before retiring for the second time. Johnson cited the other players' concerns about the possibility of being infected while playing and his desire to stay healthy for his family.
Johnson remained active in the basketball world. He purchased five percent of the Lakers, and he formed a charitable—but competitive—basketball team that played exhibition games around the world. He became a vice-president in the Lakers organization and took over as interim head coach of the team for the last part of the 1992-93 season.
But Johnson really preferred playing to coaching. At the beginning of 1996, the rumors of his return proved to be true. Magic Johnson came back to the L. A. Lakers, this time as a power forward and not a point guard. By May 1996, however, Johnson, once again announced his retirement— this time for good. He had discovered that the current players on the team did not idolize him and would not give the ball exclusively to him.
Successful Business Ventures
Johnson showed the same all-star success as an entrepreneur. Like other star athletes, Johnson endorsed products, licensed use of his name, and gave corporate speeches for big fees. He led his Magic Johnson All-Stars round the world, playing exhibition games against foreign basketball teams for substantial profits. Since he lived in L.A, it was only natural for him to get involved in entertainment, possibly as host of of a late night talk show.
However, in a move less typical of a sports star, Johnson also became personally involved in large-scale property development. Among his successes were movie complexes and shopping centers in inner-city areas where no one else wanted to invest. In June 1995, Johnson partnered with Sony to open the 12-screen Magic Theatres multiplex in a predominantly black section of Los Angeles. The project became one of the top grossing movie outlets in America and helped boost sales and occupancy at the mall in which it was located. In 1997, Johnson opened another movie complex in southwest Atlanta. Magic movie marquees were under construction in Houston and Cleveland, and Johnson announced plans for 14 new multiplexes in 10 other cities. His company, Johnson Development went on to buy entire shopping centers in poor communties in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Johnson earned goodwill for helping spiff up and bringing jobs to the inner cities. His ventures also brought him great personal wealth. Time quoted him as saying "It's important to help the community, but the number one goal here is to make money. This is not charity."
Johnson's personal involvement in business affairs got its impetus early in his hoop career. He realized he had signed away his talents for too low a salary. And he also witnessed the fleecing of fellow Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who lost millions to unscrupulous financial advisers. In the mid-1980s, Johnson dumped his own advisers and demanded monthly statements from his new ones. By 1996, he had a net worth of more than $100 million.
Living with HIV
In September 1991, just before he learned he had HIV, Johnson wed longtime friend Earletha "Cookie" Kelly. The couple had a son in 1993 and adopted a daughter in 1995. Johnson also has a son from a previous relationship who spends the summers with him. Ever optimistic, Johnson believed that the right combination of medicine, diet, and exercise would help him to survive until a cure for AIDS was found.
Johnson's physicians announced in early 1997 that the AIDS virus in his body had been reduced to undetectable levels. They attributed the improvement to the use of powerful drugs, including protese inhibitors. His wife Cookie gave the credit to God stating, "The Lord has definitely healed Earvin. Doctors think it's the medicine. We claim it in the name of Jesus." The Johnsons attended the West Angles Church of God in Christ, to which he donated $5 million in 1995.
Further Reading on Earvin Johnson Jr
Two early biographies, Magic with Richard Levin (1983) and Magic's Touch with Roy S. Johnson (1989) are interesting but were written before the devastating discovery that ended Johnson's career. An important and well written biography is Magic Johnson: My Life (1992). Deeply moving, the book contains a message to young persons that shows Johnson's sincere concern for them. For more about the Olympic "Dream Team" readers should see The Golden Boys by Cameron Smith (1992).
Also see Blatt, Howard, Magic! Against the Odds (Pocket Books, 1996); "The Magic and the Money," Forbes, December 16, 1996, p. 264-266; and Monroe, Sylvester, "Post-game show," Time, March 17, 1997, p. 38-39.