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How Magic Johnson Set the Bar For Athletes in Business

Former SI writer Richard Hoffer shares how the Lakers' legend had dreams of dominating the boardroom before he even graduated high school.

In 1991, Magic Johnson landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with plans to cement himself as a business mogul. Today, Magic Johnson Enterprises, Johnson's investment firm, has holdings worth an estimated $1 billion. Sports Illustrated is opening up the SI Vault and examining its most consequential work about the most legendary athletes in sports through its new podcast, The Record.

On this week episode of The Record, SI senior writer Richard Hoffer  talks with Priya Desai about his Dec. 1990 article titled, Magic Kingdom. Hoffer details the time he spent with Johnson and shares how the Lakers' legend had dreams of dominating the boardroom before he even graduated high school. 

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Priya Desai: Ambition, I think, is a central theme to the feature. What I found interesting, there's a quote from CAA Co-founder Michael Ovitz. He says we don't represent athletes. That he considered that more lightweight stuff, which I found surprising considering what CAA is now. They rep Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, but was being an athlete in the ’90s not considered lucrative outside of their league contracts?

Richard Hoffer: I don't believe it was. I think they date the birth of sports celebrities Mark McCormick and Arnold Palmer, which would have been some years before then, But nobody had really capitalized on their fame or accomplishments or achievements or celebrity up to that point. I mean, now everybody has their own billboard, back then that was that was kind of new. I don't think athletes were I don't want to say appreciated, but they were certainly not exploited or deployed the way they are now. So the idea that you could milk some money out of Magic Johnson, I think was kind of new.

PD: Did you approach the feature knowing that you weren't really going to discuss a lot of his on court career and really talking more about his desires to become this business mogul?

RH: I think that was the pitch right from the get go. I mean, Magic is agreeable to anything. If I want to talk about basketball, we could have done that story, too. But I think he was especially eager to reveal this side of his life, of his career. Most athletes, especially superstars, at some point are eager to show they're more than just their triple doubles and, if you get him on something like his business career, his aspirations and ambitions, I think he was fired up to tackle that angle.

PD: Did he want to accomplish wealth as opposed to fame and riches? Was it this idea of wealth and the power that's connected to it?

RH: I don't think it was about money for him, although I don't think he minded the money. I just think he wanted to be the sort of a pillar in the community. I think he had this notion of himself as someone, you know, important and looked up to and respected, and I think that was the motivation for most of this. He's enjoys the fame. I mean, nobody enjoyed it more than Magic, but I really do believe that he just wanted to be this kind of a mover and shaker.