Johnson won five titles as a member of the Lakers
. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images News)
NBA legend Magic Johnson has fired back at Donald Sterling, one day after the disgraced Clippers owner attacked him for being HIV-positive and accused him of not supporting the African-American community during a nationally-televised interview.
Speaking to CNN's Anderson Cooper on Tuesday, Johnson did his best to take the high road as he tried to set the record straight about his work with HIV and AIDS-related charities and his other charitable endeavors, while also reacting to Sterling's initial comments that he didn't want his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, to take pictures with Johnson or bring African-Americans to Clippers games.
"I just feel sorry for him," Johnson said. "I really do. It’s sad. ... The problem is, he is living in the Stone Ages. He can't make those comments about African-Americans or Latinos. He just can't do it."
Sterling made headlines with vicious comments about Johnson, who announced that he was HIV-positive in 1991.
“What kind of guy goes to every city, has sex with every girl, then he goes and catches HIV,” Sterling said. “Is that someone we want to respect and tell our kids about? I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. And what does he do for black people? He hasn’t done anything.
“Here’s a man, I don’t know if I should say this, he acts so holy. He made love with every girl in every city in America, and he had AIDS, and when he had those AIDS, I went to my synagogue and I prayed for him. I hoped he could live and be well. I didn’t criticize him. I could have. Is he an example for children?"
Johnson offered a lengthy response to CNN.
"Here's a man we would think would be educated. A man who is smart enough to build this type of wealth and own a team and has an incredible platform to change the world. And he's doing it in a negative way.
"First of all, 22 years ago I announced I did have HIV. I came out like a man. I told the world. I didn’t blame nobody else. I understood what I did was wrong. I announced that to the world. I hope I was able to help people and I think I did.
"I have been to hospitals hugging people with HIV and AIDS before they were dying, or people who didn't know if they could live a long time, I hugged them, I counseled them, I talked to them. I talked to them about taking their meds, about making sure they stay on their regimen, which is the key. I talked to a lot of young people who just got HIV, who were thinking about committing suicide, you see? I tried to talk them out of that.
"And we've given away more than $15 million, my foundation. I've joined the president's HIV and AIDS council. I've done a lot of work in the HIV and AIDS community.
"I don't have to sit and publicize everything I do."
Johnson, 54, was one of the most beloved players in league history, capturing five titles, three MVP awards and three Finals MVP awards while making 12 All-Star Game appearances during his 13-year career. The motor behind the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s, Johnson is widely regarded as one of the greatest point guards of all time.
Since his final retirement in 1996, Johnson has served as Lakers coach, he held an ownership stake in the Lakers, he assembled a group that purchased the L.A. Dodgers, and he has served as a television commentator. In 1991, Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, and he has spent years championing HIV and AIDS-related causes. Additionally, Johnson owns a chain of movie theaters, among other business ventures, and his net worth is reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars. His foundation has donated millions of dollars to various charitable causes.
Johnson described meeting Sterling for the first time more than 35 years ago, and he said he felt the two men were "friends," even if they didn't spend an inordinate amount of time together.
"I don't know this Donald," Johnson told CNN. "We had basketball conversations, we didn't have life conversations. ... I didn't know he would take it to this level."
During Sterling's discussion with Cooper, the Clippers owner tried to draw a distinction between the Jewish community and the African-African community in how each community supports its own members.
“The Jewish people have a company and it’s for people who want to borrow money for no interest,” he said. “We want to give them a fishing pole. We want to help people. If they don’t have money, we’ll loan it to them. There is no African-American …. I’m sorry. they all want to play golf with me, everyone wants to be with me.”
Johnson told Cooper that he has "150 kids on scholarship right now" and noted that many of his business efforts, including his chain of movie theaters and Starbucks coffee franchises, have provided an economic benefit in inner-city communities.
"We've committed thousands and thousands of jobs in urban America," Johnson explained. "Those people can walk to their jobs and take care of their families because of Starbucks, 24-Hour Fitness, on and on and on. The Magic Johnson Theaters. I continue to do good work in urban America and I'm devoted, my whole life is devoted to urban America. I just wish he knew the facts when he's talking. But he's a man who's upset and he's reaching. He's reaching. He's trying to find something that he can grab on to help him save his team. And it's not going to happen. It's not going to happen."
Despite Sterling's personal attacks and character assassination, Johnson said he wouldn't allow himself to be consumed by the negativity, even if he was "blown away" by some of Sterling's comments.
"I'm not a guy who holds grudges and all that," he told CNN. "Yes, am I upset? Of course! But at the same time, I'm a God-fearing man and I'm going to pray for him and hope things work out for him."
One other matter that Johnson addressed: Sterling's assertion that the Clippers players still "love" him despite his controversial, racist comments.
"He is delusional," Johnson said. "Not only the Clippers don't love him. The other players in the NBA don't love him. The players have rallied together. ... He can't buy his way out of this one. He has bought his way out of all the other situations. Can't do it this time. ... I think the players, the fans and the sponsors wouldn't go for [Sterling remaining as owner]."
Indeed, National Basketball Players Association executive Roger Mason Jr. said Tuesday that the league's players, including Heat forward LeBron James, would boycott games if Sterling was still an owner during the 2014-15 season.
Finally, Johnson offered some unsolicited advice to Sterling.
"You're fighting a battle that you can't win," he told CNN. "You're putting your family in a tough situation as well. It is not just him. He is making his family members look bad by going out, saying these things about myself, African-Americans, on and on. So, if I was him, I would just, you know, benefit from the fruits of my labor and just take the money, go and enjoy your life."
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement Monday night in response to Sterling's CNN interview: “I just read a transcript of Donald Sterling’s interview with Anderson Cooper and while Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to, I feel compelled on behalf of the NBA family to apologize to him that he continues to be dragged into this situation and be degraded by such a malicious and personal attack. The NBA Board of Governors is continuing with its process to remove Mr. Sterling as expeditiously as possible.”
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