Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr.
Born August 14, 1959 in Lansing, Michigan
They called the little boy “June” or “Junebug,” because he was a junior. Every time you saw him, he had a basketball in hand. On the way to the store, it beat out a rhythm on the sidewalk. Walking down the street, he dribbled it in and out between parked cars. On the schoolyard, you could often find him playing by himself, calling a game that unfolded in the arena of his imagination.
Earvin “Junebug” Johnson was the son of Christine and Earvin Sr. The elder Earvin was an assembly line worker for General Motors, working a shift that began before 5 in the afternoon and ended after 3 the next morning. He usually had a second job, too: pumping gas, fixing cars. He even had his own trash-hauling business.
In the rare moments that he wasn’t working, Earvin and his gangly namesake could often be found watching basketball games on television, the father pointing out the subtleties of the game. Sometimes, they’d even play one on one at the schoolyard.
Years passed. And young Junebug Johnson grew into a local basketball legend. The basketball world would get its first taste of him when he was bused to all-white Everett High. There, he had to overcome the prejudices of his teammates and his own uncertainty in the new environment to blossom into the star of an unstoppable high school powerhouse.
It was after one particularly good game – he’d put up 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists – that Junebug was approached by a local sportswriter who told him he needed a nickname. “How about if I call you Magic?”
Embarrassed by the question, 15- year old Earvin shrugged his indifferent approval. As he would write years later, “I didn’t expect to hear that name again.”
But before long, the whole world would know the name Magic Johnson.
First, he led Everett High to its first-ever state championship. Two years later, he led Michigan State Spartans to the NCAA championship, prevailing over the Indiana State Sycamores, who were led by another basketball phenom by the name of Larry Bird. This clash of the titans would go down as one of the most storied matchups in college basketball history. But Johnson’s legend was just beginning.
Nobody had ever seen a player quite like him before. At 6’9”, he had the size of a forward, but the ball-handling skills of a guard. He was a master of the impossible pass, delivering the ball with pinpoint accuracy through a thicket of opposing players. His court vision was so uncanny that you had to wonder if he had more than the requisite number of eyes. And his on court demeanor was an improbable mix of iron will and palpable, infectious joy.
Now, having won the top prize in high school and college, he would be taking that package of skills to basketball’s biggest stage. After two years at Michigan State, he turned professional and was drafted by The Los Angeles Lakers. Basketball would never be the same again.
Magic Johnson’s Lakers would be the most dominant force in the game. The first championship came in Johnson’s first year, though the prospects for victory seemed bleak as the decisive game began. The team’s most potent weapon, the great center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was home in Los Angeles, nursing a sprained ankle. The consensus among observers was the Lakers had no chance of subduing the powerful Philadelphia 76ers and their air-walking star, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, without him.
What ensued was a game for the ages. Johnson started at center and played all five positions. The 20-year old rookie stole the show, logging 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. It was a performance for the ages. And a coming out party for the NBA’s newest star.
They called Laker basketball in the 1980s Showtime. This was in recognition of the fact that Hollywood was just down the road and Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon were watching the game from courtside seats. But most of all, it was in recognition of the dazzling style of play Johnson brought to the NBA.
With him at point guard, Laker basketball was an exercise in constant improvisation. It was jazz on the hardwood, Abdul-Jabbar ripping down the rebound, outletting the ball to Johnson, already on the move, James Worthy streaking along on his left, Byron Scott running flat out on his right, some poor defender backpedaling furiously, helplessly, Johnson looking to his right but then – No! Oh my God, how’d he do that? – somehow, the ball flies to his left, catching Worthy in stride as he gathers himself and jams it through the ring one-handed.
The rest of the league had no answer for this. The Lakers rampaged through the 1980s and early 1990s. In Johnson’s 12 full seasons with the team, they made the finals nine times and won five of those.
The team would win the big prize again in 1982, though that season was marked by a personal low for Johnson. Just a few games in, Coach Paul Westhead took over for Coach Jack McKinney, who had been badly injured in a bicycle accident. The new coach introduced a new system: no more running and gunning. Instead, Johnson was to walk the ball up and pass it in to Abdul-Jabbar. Frustrated by the new style of play and butting heads with his new coach, Johnson vented to reporters one night in the locker room. “I can’t play here anymore,” he said. I’ve got to leave. I want to be traded.”
Westhead was fired the next day. Laker management insisted they had intended to fire Westhead all along. But it was not a good look. For the first time, the Laker’s charismatic young point guard was perceived as a villain, a spoiled superstar who didn’t know his place. Boos rained down from the rafters of the Lakers’ home court. Fans dubbed him “Tragic” Johnson.
But at the end of the season, under new coach Pat Riley, Johnson’s Lakers once again dispatched the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Finals in six games.
The Lakers would win again in 1985, defeating the Celtics in six games. They became the first opposing team to ever win a deciding game in storied Boston Garden and in the process, provided Johnson with personal vindication after a series of uncharacteristic errors the previous year `cost his team a championship against the Celtics. Two more championships followed in 1987 and 1988.
In 1991, Johnson married his longtime sweetheart, Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly. That same year, he played in what would turn out to be his last NBA Finals, losing 4-1 against the Chicago Bulls and their star, Michael Jordan.
The curtain fell on Showtime in the fall of that same year when Johnson stunned the basketball world and the nation at large by announcing that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and would retired immediately from basketball. At 32, he was still in his prime, with three Most Valuable Player awards under his belt and, one would have presumed, a lot of basketball yet to play. But in that era, there were still fears that you could contract HIV from being close to an infected person. Indeed, the virus was considered an automatic death sentence. The media were filled with premature obituaries.
Johnson, preternaturally poised in the face of devastating news, never evinced a single public moment of fear. He told Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, “When God gave me this disease, He gave it to the right person.” Magic Johnson became a tireless advocate for those afflicted with the disease, even briefly serving on the National Commission on AIDS before resigning in the conviction that President George H.W. Bush was not serious about improving AIDS research and treatment.
He would soon prove the premature obituaries to have been just that, moving on to a long post-Lakers life filled with highlights. In 1992, he played in an emotional final All-Star Game and walked away as its MVP. That same year, he joined a squad of the NBA’s elite, including Jordan, Bird, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and David Robinson in a “dream team” that crushed the best the world had to offer and brought home the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.
Johnson even returned to the Lakers for a short stint as their coach in the 1993-94 season, and in 1995-96, as a player for 32 games. In 1998, he starred in a poorly-reviewed late night talk show, The Magic Hour.
But for the most part, Johnson’s post-Lakers life has been distinguished by his varied business pursuits under the umbrella of his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises. He has brought such chains as Starbucks, and TGI Friday’s to under-served communities and also opened Magic Johnson movie theaters in Los Angeles, Harlem and suburban Washington, DC. In 2012, Johnson was part of an investment group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2014, he was part of a group that purchased the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA. In 2017, Johnson returned to the Lakers, when he was named president of basketball operations.
Sources: Biography.com, NBA.com, Imbd.com, BleacherReport.com, The Announcement (ESPN Films), MagicJohnson.com, My Life by Earvin “Magic” Johnson with William Novak