“Just know what you don’t know.”
That was the advice Magic Johnson received when he decided to become more than a basketball player and build a business empire.
“I figured out that you have strength in some areas but you are weak in some others. So I had to get better and get mentors,” says Johnson. “I think the best advice was to get mentors to help me understand business, because I didn't understand it.
"I am always learning, even today. I love knowledge and I love to grow to get better, my business has been amazing. I started small and I have grown into a big company and I am happy about where we are.”
Thirty years after receiving that advice, Johnson has become the poster image for successfully transitioning into the business world. Magic Johnson Enterprises’ investment portfolio is estimated to be in the $1 billion range, and he has done everything from partnering with Sony Pictures to create Magic Johnson Theaters, becoming the only franchisee in the history of Starbucks and developing into a media maven. He is also currently the president of the Lakers, co-owns the Los Angeles Sparks, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Football Club of the MLS. Most importantly, he serves as the Chairman and Founder of the Magic Johnson Foundation, where he brings awareness to HIV/Aids through educational programs.
Johnson’s brand is still growing today—he still has the smile, the charisma, and the professionalism and, of course, he still has a winners mentality. These attributes are a reason why athletic apparel company, Champion, called on Johnson to be a leading spokesman for its 100th year anniversary campaign, “100 Years for the Team”. Champion outfitted the 1992 Olympic Dream Team that won the gold medal in Barcelona, a time Magic recalls as one of the greatest times in his life.
“My favorite memory is the gold medal situation—if you are choosing one—hanging out with the guys and playing Michael [Jordan] in cards every single night,” says Johnson. “That was my single greatest moment and just having fun with him, and having fun with him on the court too because Chuck Daly would always divide the teams—Michael’s team and my team and the trash talking was just excellent. And the basketball that was being played was some of the best basketball we played in our lives.”
The Dream Team era was a golden age for the NBA. The league was growing at a rapid rate. Stars were becoming personal brands. Johnson, while at the tail-end of his career, saw firsthand how much influence players had on the rest of the world.
“This game started on the street and is still big on the street. I don’t care who they are, when you think about professional football players, professional baseball players, professional hockey players and professional soccer players, they all want to be like basketball players,” says Johnson. “This game is so popular among young people, and when you have a game that is so popular on the street and around the world, fans follow their favorite players and those players can influence them on how they dress and what they have on.”
Another major storyline that developed in Barcelona was the passing of the torch moment between Magic and Jordan. Both athletes are globally known and both brought in billions for the NBA due to their likeness. While we know there was a rivalry on the court, as they faced each other in the NBA Finals in 1991, was there a rivalry off of it in the business world?
“We knew Michael was special from day one when he arrived in the league. I think his first year he showed everybody. He had a special talent and then it just got bigger, and he got bigger, then he got better and grew even bigger as a talent,” laughs Johnson. “Every year he would add something to his game and I think that for all of us, I think it was great to see his growth and then when he started branching out and doing all of the things he was able to do—now in Charlotte—he has been an amazing business man.
“We don’t really consider each other rivals in that term—we were rivals on the court but in business it was different. We are not like that. He is doing his thing and I am doing my own thing and we are proud of each other and respect each other.”
Today’s NBA stars have expanded their own personal brands. Stars like Stephen Curry have 23.7 million Instagram followers while role players such as P.J. Tucker have become famous for his sneaker collection and style. Either way, Magic is happy that he didn’t need social media when he started venturing into business.
“I am happy where I am at in business. When you look at Michael and myself, we are where everybody wants to go," says Johnson. "That’s like asking Michael if he thinks social media should have been around. We didn’t need what they had today. We were successful because we played the game the right way and we won, we were smart enough to understand that we can go and do other things and be successful in business. We made the blueprint for those guys to follow. So you have to think about that these things don’t happen for players if it wasn’t for Michael and I.”
Magic’s blueprint laid the foundation down for a player like LeBron James, who has followed in the footsteps of his idols. LeBron joined the Lakers over the summer and much of his decision can be credited to Johnson’s presence. James continues to build his own mogul like portfolio—he has stake in the English Premier League’s Liverpool, is co-founder of Uninterrupted, and has a reported billion dollar contract from Nike. He also has ambitions of being a box-office star with Space Jam 2 slated to release in the near future.
It was Johnson who LeBron invited to his house in Brentwood before making his decision. From SI’s article in July, Lee Jenkins detailed the conversation between Johnson and LeBron through agent Rich Paul.
"It was like watching two fish in a fish tank that speak a language the rest of the world can't understand," Paul said. "Magic understands what it's like to be LeBron.”
With LeBron on board and a young core on the Lakers’ roster, Johnson is sharing his wealth of knowledge in the business world with his group. They have brought in different celebrity speakers throughout the season like The Rock and Kendrick Lamar to chat about life and business. But the greatest mentor anyone on the team could have is Magic himself.
“My door is always open in terms of what they want to talk about. Whether it is stuff off the court or whether it is stuff on the court,” says Johnson. “I talk to them about things I see in games and talk about things with them that has to do with their lives. It depends, there is no certain thing that I talk to them about, it’s everything.”
He has the business portfolio, he has the best player in the world on his roster and he is healthy. So what is next for Johnson?
“First of all, the mindset is to win and do anything it would take to win, to dominate on the court," says Johnson. "And so I think you have to understand that L.A. is a beautiful city where a lot of beautiful people live. Hollywood is sitting right there and you can’t go too close to all of that stuff because if you do it’s going to take away from you winning on the basketball court. So you have to be disciplined to play in Los Angeles and you have to remember with the Lakers organization it’s all about winning championships.”