Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE
He seemed like a kid then — a fully grown, prematurely balding, totally mature-beyond-his-years kid, a born leader in every way. I was in the Lakers’ team hotel on the road one night when it caught fire. The alarm went off, and I descended a staircase with a few of the guys when we realized Magic wasn’t with us. He was Pied Piper-ing other hotel guests through hallways and down a fire escape before getting out to safety himself.
Today, a somewhat heftier but still spry 53, Magic is an elder sportsman-statesman. He has three kids. A daughter is about to go off to college. He and his wife, Cookie, have a pair of grandchildren, Gigi and Avery.
He got married to Earleatha “Cookie” Kelly in 1991, the same year of his serious health announcement. HIV seemed like a death sentence then. AIDS was a plague on the planet. He vowed to beat it. He had defeated opponents of all sizes in his day, but this one struck people as beyond even his reach.
A Magical Partnership
“Traveling” is a rule violation in basketball, but it’s a way to success in business, where Magic Johnson and American Airlines have been side-by-side companions for quite a while.
A quarter-century ago and beyond, a series of star-studded summer basketball games organized by the Los Angeles Lakers star to benefit the United Negro College Fund had the airline as a sponsor. American then became the official airline of the Magic Johnson Foundation when that philanthropic organization was created in 1992.
Sodexo, a food-management giant, formed an alliance with Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2006, the result being that SodexoMagic now provides the food service to Admirals Club lounges worldwide. MJE’s executives are AAirpass holders and Concierge Key members, and a number of American’s internal functions, from diversity conferences to sales meetings, have featured Magic Johnson as a guest speaker.
“I’ve been very lucky to have American for a partner for a long, long time,” says Johnson, who, just like in his basketball days, makes sure to give an assist to his teammates whenever possible. — M.D.
A lot of friends, colleagues and strangers, myself included, overreacted. We weren’t sure Magic Johnson belonged on a basketball court risking cuts and bruises with contaminated blood. We watched in amazement when the league allowed him to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game because his fans had voted him in, and scored 25 points, becoming the game’s MVP. We watched with anxiety as he chose to unretire, play for the Lakers a little while longer, then re-retire, this time because he wanted to, not because he had to.
Now when he stands before a crowd, as he did at a Birmingham, Ala., event in 2012 where he was presented a key to that city, the first words out of Magic’s mouth are: “They said I was supposed to die.” He pauses to let that sink in. “But God kept me safe.”
I ask him what the experience was like. “When I announced what I had,” he says, “there was one drug to fight it. Now there’s 20. Now people can talk openly about it, which wasn’t easy to do 20 or 25 years ago. Early detection and medication saved me. It’s the most important message I can give to anybody anywhere: Get tested.”
It seems that no matter what he does, Magic Johnson makes news. He outdid himself, however, last May. The Dodgers baseball club was for sale — the former owners in the midst of a nasty divorce — and a lot of people wondered who would buy the team. Names of potential buyers bounced around: the rich and the super-rich; old ballplayers linking up with syndicates. I wrote a story at the time identifying a dozen or more. I added, half-seriously, the name of Magic Johnson, just so he could bring his patented brand of “Showtime” to a team that could use some. I kidded how cool it would be to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a Dodgers coach during batting practice, swinging a fungo bat. Hahaha.
Darned if he didn’t do it. He bought the team.
Well, he and his Big Moneyball Dream Team bought it. Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, Peter Guber, Todd Boehly and Bobby Patton, his new wingmen, pulled out their checkbooks and purchased the Dodgers with him — for $2.15 billion. As in two-thousand million and change. Magic Johnson and baseball? Wait a minute, someone out there must have thought. They go together like peanut butter and pepper, or salt and jelly. I don’t even know myself, so I ask: “Did you ever even play baseball?”
“I played one game,” he says, telling the little-known tale of Lansing’s version of a tall Bad News Bear. “I batted one time. I have to tell you, when that ball came at me, I was done. I was about 10 or 11. I stepped into that box, and the pitcher threw it. The umpire said, ‘Strike 1!’ I stepped out and back in. The ump said, ‘Strike 2!’ One more. ‘Strike 3!’ I went back to the dugout and my coach said, ‘I don’t think this game is for you.’ I said, ‘I think you’re right.’ ”