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L.A. is Magic

Magic Johnson for Delta Sky Magazine, February 2012

Magic Johnson was a master at spotting openings on the court—and his vision is no less impressive in the world of business, making him one of Los Angeles’ most prominent entrepreneurs and a catalyst for positive change in the community.

Magic Johnson photograped for Sky by Justin Stephens at Hotel Erwin, Venice Beach, Calif.

By this point, some of us have wasted weeks of our lives—if not years—in three-minute increments on YouTube. Along the way, some universal truths have become apparent: (1) Wham!’s “Club Tropicana” video is the greatest music video of all times, and (2) NBA highlight videos of players passing the ball are much more exciting than videos of players shooting the ball—or even dunking it. The reason for the latter is pretty simple: surprise. These are highlight reels, so you expect something cool to happen, but great passing stands out, like a twist ending on Lost or a Ricky Jay card trick.

Being surprised is different from being impressed. Think of the great basketball tricksters: the Harlem Globetrotters, Pete Maravich, Larry Bird, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and now Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio. These guys aren’t 100 feet tall, graceful as a swan or fast as a cheetah. They seem like us, but more clever, more creative. They see it coming. They make it happen. But whether you call this a “trick” or just “magic,” we love being fooled. And nobody fooled us more often than Magic Johnson.

On a basketball court, Johnson could see things happening before anybody else around him could, before the viewer at home and the announcers and his teammates and the opposing team. Watch his YouTube videos—they are full of “Ta-da!” moments, where time stops for a split second and a suddenly unguarded Laker, surprised himself to be alone, dunks the ball, punctuating Johnson’s trick. Johnson has had more “Ta-da!” moments than anybody. And of course, he relished the role: He played in Los Angeles, the world capital of show business, leading an offense known as “Showtime.”

Magic Johnson smiles all the time. He still does. When I was a kid following him on television, watching courtside stars such as Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon watching their star, it turns out I had no idea what Johnson was seeing. He was seeing things that none of us, especially those of us sitting at home in suburban America, could see. Magic Johnson saw past Boston Celtic pest Danny Ainge; out of the corner of his eye, he could see teammate James Worthy trailing on a fast break, beginning to accelerate to the hoop. Johnson even saw past Worthy; he saw superagent Michael Ovitz and businessmen such as J. Bruce Llewellyn and Peter Guber, former CEO and chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, sitting courtside. And beyond them, Johnson saw over the crowd, past the walls of the Great Western Forum and into the black neighborhoods of South Central LA, the struggling strip malls and dingy burger joints of Inglewood and Baldwin Hills. He saw opportunities that none of us knew existed.

And now he’s a businessman with a company reportedly worth more than $700 million, the owner of radio stations, food service employment agencies, hotels, condos, television networks, movie theaters and restaurants. And he may be the most important civil rights activist in sports since Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown. Ta-Da!


Suit and shirt by Jhoanna Alba. Belt by Gucci. Customized Nike sneakers by King of Sneakers, kingofsneakers.com.    

“It’s a blessing that I ended up in this town, because LA fits my personality,” Johnson tells me over the phone. “[At this point] LA is Magic, Magic is LA.” The day before talking to him, I drove down La Cienega Boulevard toward Magic Johnson’s TGI Friday's in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood. The signage in Los Angeles is relentless in its appeal for your attention. Names in every possible font in a riot of different colors compete for sunlight: Tom’s Jr. Burgers, Felix Chevrolet, St. Andrew’s Baptist Church. And everything is “Famous,” whether chicken or waffles or French fries. Two signs stand out: Starbucks green lettering and Friday’s candy stripes are as familiar to me as religious icons, but the sign for Magic’s TGI Fridays is different: It actually says “Magic Johnson’s Fridays."

The Fridays is still Johnson’s, obviously, and he used to own the Starbucks next door, too—in 2010, he sold back his 125 inner-city Starbucks after a profitable partnership. In 1996, Johnson brought Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz to see the premiere of Waiting to Exhale at the Magic Johnson Theater up the street. (“Sometimes you gotta take people to the deal,” Johnson says. “You gotta take them to the hood.”) Schultz was impressed by the crowd and by Johnson’s insightful business plan: His research showed that people from the neighborhood were driving out of their way to get their Starbucks fix. “We know that Ladera is the richest black community in the nation,” Johnson says. “People here really care about the community and they care about having the best shopping opportunities possible, just like everybody in suburban America. They want to have those same opportunities right there, and we brought it to them.”

I park in the Starbucks lot next to an Acura with butterfly doors flipped up pumping “It’s You That I Need” by the 1970s Detroit soul outfit Enchantment. Before the milk on my latte is frothed, I realize that Magic’s Starbucks is unlike any Starbucks I’ve ever been to. Johnson later corroborates this: “Yeah, that Starbucks is always in the magazines. Jet magazine rated us the number one place to meet people in LA!” It’s 75 degrees in the middle of December, and the Detroit soul provides a soundtrack for a spirited game of dominoes being played on a table on the front patio. Inside, half the room is dominated by laptops, but the other half is filled with pairs of speed chess players. A Bubba Smith-sized guy named “Doc” steps up from his game to act as the unofficial Starbucks ambassador. He tells me that Johnson still comes in from time to time—he used to live a couple of minutes away in Fox Hills, and his barber and his church are still in the neighborhood—but that he’s yet to see Magic at the chessboard.

Suit, shirt and tie by Jhoanna Alba. Pocket square by Salvatore Ferragamo. Shoes and belt by Gucci. Cufflinks by David Yurman. Photographed at Barlo Restaurant at Hotel Erwin.      

Not that he’s not up for a challenge: Johnson, both as a basketball player and a businessman, has always been drawn to down-and-out projects with potential. It began as a prep ballplayer in Lansing, Michigan, when he went to Everett instead of traditional city power Sexton and won a championship his senior year. After that he committed to his hometown Michigan State Spartans over other Big 10 powers—he brought an NCAA championship to Lansing in 1979.

When he was drafted by the Lakers, Johnson’s team was doing OK, but the league as a whole was not—NBA television ratings were so low their games were on tape delay—and Johnson (with Larry Bird and, later, Michael Jordan) took the pro game to places it had never been. Then, as an encore to his retirement, he avenged USA Basketball’s Olympic loss in 1988 by joining the first professional “Dream Team” in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, taking back the gold medal and reminding the world that we invented the game.

And that’s just basketball—since retiring from the game, he’s focused on turning around entire inner-city communities by bringing his people successful businesses that provide jobs and self-esteem, whether it’s Starbucks or 24 Hour Fitness or W Hotels or TGI Friday’s. This past year, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put Johnson at the front and center of the city’s campaign to build an NFL stadium, part of a continuing effort to revitalize Downtown Los Angeles. Recently, Johnson announced that he was part of a group that would be bidding on the LA Dodgers, who are emerging from bankruptcy court after a nasty divorce between the two former owners. “I’ve been going to the Dodgers game for over 30 years,” he says. “I saw the Dodgers when they were winning the World Series. Excitement comes with winning in this town. So if you win, you will have the celebrities and everybody loving you, but if you lose, then everybody has too many other things to do.”

Johnson’s biggest win, his most profound reclamation project, is his own health. Back in 1991, he shocked the entire country when he announced he was infected with the HIV virus and was retiring from basketball immediately. Now, 21 years later, he’s out lobbying the national press to focus on the fact that despite his ability to live with it, minorities are struggling with HIV disproportionately.

“HIV has no question changed my life,” he says. “But in a positive way.” He credits the medicine with doing its part, and he says he gets up every morning at 5:30 to work out, just like he did before school back in Lansing. “I’ve kept a positive attitude,” he says. “And my Q ratings are only second to Bill Clinton’s in the state of California. My Q ratings are higher than even when I was playing basketball around the country and around the world.” Somehow, he’s transformed his struggle with the most stigmatized disease ever into a brand strength, a testament to his willfulness, to his ability to give the underdog hope and to making that smile of his seem inevitable.

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Magic-is my basketball hero! He brought much happiness to my heart while I was growing up in urban Amercia in northern New Jersey. God allowed my dream to come true when I met him at a Hibbet's Sports in Birmingham, AL. I told him that I asked the Lord to let him live and not die. When we hugged eachother, I felt like my father hugged me. I hope to one day soon enjoy a day with him and tell him how his life has impacted mine!!! He never forgot his family and where he came from... Magic 32 FOREVER. Alberto Pagan Delta Skymiles customer
2/4/2012 9:45:39 AM

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