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I finally landed my childhood hero and idol as a guest on this week’s “Renaissance Man.” He changed the NBA with his dazzling “showtime” play, his megawatt smile and his business chops. And like me, he’s a Michigan guy. So when Earvin “Magic” Johnson was younger, who did he look to as his ideal in basketball, business and life?
“I looked at guys like Dr. J. I wanted to be like him,” he told me. “And so when I saw him flying through the air and then when I saw the Iceman poster and him sitting on two blocks of ice in the gray sweatsuit, I said, ‘Oh, man, I want that.’”
He got that: the championships, the MVP awards and the endorsements. He was a pitchman for Spalding, Pepsi and Converse. If he didn’t have a toothpaste ad, he should have. As an American-born black athlete, he helped corporate America see us as viable endorsers and partners. Sure, there were others before him, but he was everywhere with his infectious personality.
I first met Magic just before I went off to college, not too long after he left the game with his earth-shattering announcement that he was HIV positive.
He came to my alma mater, Detroit’s Southwestern High School, where students took accelerated classes and at the end you earned an in-person audience with an influential figure. That year, it happened to be Magic. He gave me some advice on being a tall point guard in college and told me to keep my nose in my school books at the University of Michigan. We were separated by a generation but bound by our geographical origins and physicality.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Magic is a great friend and a mentor, but it was still overwhelming to have him on my show, where we covered everything from his pump-up music — Michael Jackson — to his favorite celebrity Laker fan — Jack Nicholson — and the three players he admires most in today’s league — Steph Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He also told me about the three-month-long cryfest he had in the summer of 1984.
“When we lost in the 1984 Finals to the Celtics after winning Game 1 in Boston and we had the lead to win Game 2 and [Gerald] Henderson steals the ball at the end and ties the game up … You know, I’ve always excelled in every championship series. And then this was the first time I made critical mistakes for us to lose that championship. So I cried, Jalen, for three months, all summer. I cried because I let my teammates down. I was the reason why we lost the championship.”
He put down the Kleenex, looked in the mirror and gave himself a critical self-review. “The first thing I had to do, Jalen, was identify, to say to myself, I’m not as good as I thought I was. I got to go back to the lab. I got to go back to work. See, self-evaluation is the hardest thing you have to do. Then you can improve.” He turned those salty tears into sweat, working out three times a day that summer. He was relentless. And the next year, he was victorious, beating the Celtics, led by his rival (and my coach in Indiana) Larry Bird.
“We ended up beating them because I got better and I didn’t make critical mistakes,” Magic said. But his takeaway wasn’t just a ring. It became a life mantra: Don’t surround yourself with yes people who will fluff up your bruised ego.
“So I always say to everybody out there, get you a mentor, get you somebody who could tell you the truth … Not somebody that’s always going to say yes to you. Someone that’s going to say no to you.”
Magic is huge on mentorship. He sought out mentors early and often. Now he is a mogul and owns his namesake chain of theaters. He is also part owner of the LA Dodgers. He said he learned about business from reading books, and he idolized guys like Steve Jobs and his boss, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Ph.D.
“I made sure that I told Dr. Buss, ‘You, as an owner of the Lakers, you have to be my first mentor. Teach me business.’ And sure enough, he explained business to me … And so I owe him a lot for helping me while I was still a player, you know? And then I put a team around myself. Michael Ovitz — who was the most powerful agent probably ever in the history of agency, who who started and built CAA — he said to me, ‘Do you think you’re the best basketball player?’ I said yes. ‘Then you got to get the best people around you. The best managers, the best agents, the best accountants. Those who don’t need your money.’”
Magic jumped into the movie-theater business because he knew how cost-prohibitive activities like pro sports had become, but movie tickets were still affordable for families. In fact, African-Americans were the No. 1 group going to the movies, but there were no theaters in their communities. And also in inner cities, venues and stores tended to be subpar and second class. Instead, he built top-notch facilities and made meaningful investments in our neighborhoods. They were and still are incredibly successful, especially in Los Angeles, where he enlisted help from unlikely sources.
“I went and sat down with [leaders of both] the Bloods and the Crips … I said, ‘Listen, can’t be no violence here. Matter of fact, I’ll hire some of you guys and put you to work.’ You know what? I hired 10 out of the gang. Both gangs, 20 gang members, and 15 of them stayed permanently. And it’s really changed their lives.”
Magic is no stranger to being a life changer. But he’s not the only Johnson influencing others in a positive way. His son EJ is openly gay and doesn’t always conform to gender norms, and Magic and his wife have responded with unconditional love and encouragement. I asked if Dwyane Wade’s public support of his transgender daughter, Zaya, struck a chord with him.
“It makes me feel proud and good, because this is my son. EJ announced that he was gay a long time ago, and Cookie and I love him to death. ‘Hey, be who you want to be. We’re going to support you. We’re going to love you. It don’t change nothing when it comes to us as your parents.’ And so because of that love, because of that support, now he even feels better that he can go out and wear his dress or carry his purse and feel good and comfortable with doing it … EJ has gotten so many letters from … not just here in the United States, but around the world, that he’s changed young people’s lives who were living in the dark, living in fear, Jalen, before him. And now they’re living in the light, and they have confidence to go and tell people in their family that, ‘This is who I am, this is who I’m going to be. I hope you still love me. I hope you still support me.’”
There is currently a “Last Dance”-style documentary being made on Magic, which he said will feature interviews with Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. “I can tell my story where I started in Lansing, Michigan, where I ended up here in Los Angeles with three beautiful kids, two beautiful grandchildren,” said Magic, who told me he grew up watching Oscar Robertson with his dad and dreaming of playing pro ball. That is going to be poignant because I know what it was like to be that kid watching Magic and imagining I would one day be hooping on the big stage.
When I was in the league, I had his memoir that my mother, noted super Magic fan, bought for me. He inscribed it for me, writing, “To Lil Magic: When I see you, I see me.” He gave me the blueprint for my game, my post career and my interest in philanthropy. And if I could squeeze in a quarter of what Magic has done, I will consider myself a success.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.
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