Earvin “Magic” Johnson – Teamwork
“I could see the greatness of Earvin Johnson when he was 14 years old. Once he got in the game, he always wanted to include everybody.”
The National Basketball Association (NBA) created a new term when Earvin “Magic” Johnson entered the league in 1979. This term was the “triple-double.” A player earns a triple-double when he scores in double figures, grabs at least 10 rebounds, and delivers 10 or more assists in a game. Up until this point, few players were capable of attaining such a feat in one game. Magic, however, was different. He was 6 feet, 9 inches tall and played the point guard position. These attributes made him uniquely qualified to attain triple-doubles. As a tall man, he could get a lot of rebounds and, as a point guard, he was responsible for getting the ball to the open man. At the end of his career, he had 138 triple-doubles.
Up until that point, most fans judged a basketball player on his ability to score points. Magic believed that the best way to control the game was by setting up his teammates to score. He was the consummate team player. “He just really didn’t care about individual stats. He didn’t care how many assists he got. He didn’t care how many assists he got…” said teammate James Worthy. “…As long as the team was winning.”
Magic is credited for revolutionizing the game of basketball in the 1980s. He introduced a fast-paced style of basketball that was affectionately described as “Showtime.” This brand of basketball is characterized as a mix of “no-look” passes off the fast break, pin-point alley-oops, and efficient passes to open players. No player before or since has averaged as many assists per game (11.2) as Magic Johnson. In 2006, ESPN rated Magic as the greatest point guard of all time, stating, “It could be argued that he’s the one player in NBA history who was better than Michael Jordan.” ESPN’s Sports Century ranked him as the #17 greatest athlete of the 20th Century.
Magic’s story begins in Lansing, Michigan, a tough blue-collar General Motors town. He was one of 10 children born to Earvin Sr. and Christine Johnson. Earvin fell in love with basketball at a young age. “It didn’t matter the time of day, Earvin would be dribbling the basketball,” recalled his older sister, Evelyn Johnson. “The neighbors would have to tell him, ‘Earvin cut it out.’” He spent countless hours on the playgrounds of Lansing and his legend quickly grew. He later displayed his talents on the hardwood floors of Everett High School and led his team to the state championship during his senior year. “I could see the greatness of Earvin Johnson when he was 14 years old,” said George Fox, his head coach. “Once he got in the game, he always wanted to include everybody.”
Getting a ticket to one of his high school games was nearly impossible. The world had never seen a 6-foot-9 point guard handle the ball like he did. Fred Stabley, a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal asked Earvin if he could give him a nickname. “The guy came in and said ‘I have to give you a nickname. I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Earvin recalled. The 15-year-old giggled and said, “Yah, right, you can give me a nickname.” The next day, “Earvin Magic Johnson” appeared in the paper. Needless to say, the name stuck.
Next up was Michigan State University. Head coach Jud Heathcote quickly recognized Magic’s talents as a point guard saying, “In Earvin’s case you don’t talk about the points he scores, it’s the points he produces.” During his sophomore year, Magic led his team to the National Championship game against undefeated Indiana State University. This would be the first of many times that he would face a team led by Larry Bird. An estimated 60 million people watched Michigan State win that National Championship game, 75-64. This 1979 championship game still retains the highest television ratings (Nielson, 24.1) of any basketball game ever played. Nearly 2 out of 5 people watching television that night tuned in to see this game. As a result of this popularity, the tournament expanded and lucrative television contracts were signed.
Later that year, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Magic with the first pick of the NBA draft. At the time, the NBA was struggling. The networks didn’t even air playoff games in prime time. Instead, they showed the games on tape delay after the 11 o’clock news. This all changed when Magic entered the league. Sports commentator, Dick Enberg said, “There was something magnetic about this guy – not only his play, but that smile, his personality. He did everything right. You had to follow him.”
He led his team to the NBA championship series against the Philadelphia 76ers during his rookie year. Up 3-2 in a best of 7 series, the Lakers center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured. Since Abdul-Jabbar was unable to play in game 6, Magic was asked to play center, a position he hadn’t played since middle school. Magic scored a career-high 42-points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished 7 assists, while leading his team to the championship. This 20-year-old rookie received the Series MVP Award. In four years, he had won a high school state championship, an NCAA national championship, and now an NBA championship.
Magic played 12 full seasons with the Lakers. During this time, he played in nine NBA Finals and won five of those championships. These championships were important to him. “That’s all I ever wanted – to be a winner,” Magic said. He played in 12 All-Star games and earned three NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. He did it all with a smile on his face. Teammate Michael Cooper said, “He brought the playground back into basketball – high fiving and jumping up and down, enjoying everything, getting the people into the game.” Kurt Rambis, another teammate said, “It’s just refreshing to have anybody come along with that type of enthusiasm and that love for the game.”
Then, on November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson called a press conference. Most of the networks covered it. Magic greeted the cameras that day with the following words: “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.” This was the first high-profile athlete to ever make such an announcement. People were in shock. His coach, Pat Riley summarized the mood of the country when he said, “AIDS was synonymous with death and that’s what everybody feared, that Magic was going to die.”
Magic acknowledged that he had acquired HIV through unprotected sex with numerous women throughout his NBA career. He also announced that neither his newlywed wife, Cookie, nor did his unborn child, had the disease. Magic then indicated that he was going to beat this disease. He also indicated that he was going to be a point guard on a new team. He started the Magic Johnson Foundation, which is dedicated to AIDS-related research and outreach. To this day, he continues to deliver a message of safe sex, education and research.
Magic drinks a concoction of high-powered drugs three times a day to fight this disease. He works out regularly and he eats properly. More than 25 years later, Magic Johnson is healthy. His doctors indicate that the HIV Virus is virtually untraceable in his body and his immune system is strong. He continues to show the world how to beat this disease.
The final legacy of Earvin Magic Johnson is comprised of his contributions to the business world. While he played in the NBA, Magic routinely met with business leaders as he traveled from city to city with his team. He picked the brains of CEOs and educated himself about business. He believed that he could transfer his leadership skills to business after his playing career ended. And that is what he did. His businesses currently are estimated to be worth 700 million dollars.
Perhaps Magic’s biggest contribution has been investing in inner cities. He brought movie theaters, restaurants, and retail stores into urban areas that others avoided. In so doing, Magic provided much-needed jobs to minorities in these areas, provided entertainment to the masses, and beautified depleted downtowns. “I have to tell you, I’m proudest of my life off the court,” Magic said recently. “There will always be great basketball players who bounce that little round ball, but my proudest moments are affecting people’s lives, effecting change, being a role model in the community.”
Magic also has invested his fortune back into sports. As of 2017, he is part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Los Angeles Sparks. Don’t be surprised to see these franchises soar to the top under his leadership. He wants to continue to be a leader and a great teammate. And Magic has a way of making his teammates achieve more when he is around.
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Magic Johnson is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: