Magic Johnson recognized with SI's Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award

Lakers legend Magic Johnson became the second recipient of SI's Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.
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The scope of Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s impact on the basketball world is unquestioned: The Hall of Famer redefined the point guard position, captured five championships and played a leading role in driving the NBA’s international growth. But Johnson’s influence has only increased since he retired in 1996, becoming the chief executive of a billion-dollar company, the public face of a global health cause and a major philanthropist.

To honor those diverse contributions, Sports Illustrated announced Thursday that Johnson has been recognized with the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award. Johnson, 55, is the second person and first professional athlete to receive the honor in SI's 60-year history.

Sports Illustrated’s Legacy Award celebrates individuals whose dedication to the ideals of sportsmanship has spanned decades and whose lifetime of achievement in athletics has directly or indirectly changed the world. Unlike the magazine’s Sportsman of the Year accolade, which has been given out every year since 1954, the Legacy Award is not an annual recognition. The only previous recipient is Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in 2008.

Johnson will be presented with the award during SI's Sportsman of the Year ceremony on Tuesday in New York.

“It is an honor to receive this award from Sports Illustrated,” Johnson said. “I grew up reading the magazine, which also gave me my first national exposure in its ‘Faces in the Crowd’ feature. Now, 37 years later, to be recognized by SI with a tribute that has only been given to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a woman who has made the world a better place for millions with intellectual disabilities, is very special and humbling.”

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Johnson, a Lansing, Mich., native, regularly graced the pages and covers of Sports Illustrated throughout a decorated playing career in which he earned McDonald’s All-American honors at Everett High, was named NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player at Michigan State and won three NBA MVP awards with the Lakers. The No. 1 pick in the 1979 draft played 12 seasons in Los Angeles before retiring in 1991 after announcing that he had contracted HIV. Johnson then spent four seasons away from the court before making a brief comeback in '95. Known for his “Showtime” flair and unmatched court vision, the 12-time All-Star remains the NBA’s all-time leader in assists per game. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

“When he retired from the NBA, Johnson’s ubiquitous smile was a beacon to basketball fans the world over. It now represents much more: A life dedicated to creating opportunity for others as well as himself,” Sports Illustrated said in a statement. “Few athletes have done more with the stardom they gained between the lines of competition, which is why SI is proud to honor him with its 2014 Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.” 

The seeds of Johnson’s many off-court ventures were laid during his playing career. Johnson started Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE) in 1987, when the Lakers were in the midst of winning three championships in four seasons. He has overseen his company’s extraordinary growth and guided its significant charitable efforts, as Jack McCallum notes in an upcoming story for Sports Illustrated:

​MJE is a business with an asset value of $1 billion, a multi-tentacled conglomerate that focuses on products and services for minority communities. The Magic Johnson Foundation, which he started soon after he discovered he was infected with HIV, backs a host of programs and initiatives, including minority scholarships, after-school drop-in centers in urban areas, and, most prominently, HIV/AIDS education, to which Johnson, through his business and foundation, has given about $15 million.

As for Magic Johnson himself, he is happy (albeit extremely overscheduled) and by all accounts, including his doctor’s, healthy. He gives freely from his own pocket, two examples being $5 million to his church, The West Angeles Church of God in Christ, and $2 million to his alma mater, Michigan State, where he holds a special place as Alpha Alumnus. “If Magic never gave a dime back,” says Mark Hollis, State’s athletic director, “it would still be impossible to overrate his importance to this institution.”

The 22 partner companies involved with the Magic Johnson Foundation include Microsoft, IBM, Bank of America, American Express and FedEx.

“What keeps me motivated,” Johnson says, “is not thinking about where I’ve been. It’s thinking about where I want to go.”

Johnson’s entrepreneurial efforts have included movie theaters and coffee-shop chains aimed at urban consumers, and his personal income is now estimated at $500 million. He has also bought and sold an ownership stake in the Lakers and was recently involved in the $2 billion purchase of the Dodgers.

For many, Johnson’s personal association with HIV/AIDS awareness – his emotional news conference, his return to play for the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics and in the '92 All-Star Game -- will be his legacy. Johnson’s platform as a famous and popular athlete and his willingness to discuss his health helped educate the public about a largely unknown and misunderstood disease.

In the Nov. 18, 1991, issue of Sports Illustrated, Randy Shilts predicted Johnson’s ability to affect the masses. 

“If the people battling HIV had called central casting to summon the perfect spokesman, they could not have improved upon Magic Johnson,” Shilts wrote. “A man of integrity from the macho world of sports, Magic couldn't be better suited for taking on the cause of AIDS awareness. If this sports champion preaches the gospel of safe sex and more research, there's a good chance that heterosexual mainstream America will listen.”

Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver drew a comparison between Johnson’s decades-long commitment to HID/AIDS awareness and the devoted work of his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

“When my mother founded Special Olympics, she envisioned a world where people of all abilities could be accepted – a world where no one would suffer stigma and marginalization,” Shriver said this week. “My mother chose to channel her energies into creating a better world for people with intellectual disabilities. Magic likewise bravely chose to turn personal adversity into positive action, and for that I commend him, and I am proud to add my congratulations on this extraordinary recognition of Magic Johnson’s achievements both on and off the court."

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the inaugural recipient of Sports Illustrated’s Legacy Award six years ago, the Special Olympics’ 40th anniversary. The sister of President John F. Kennedy and the wife of U.S. ambassador Sargent Shriver pursued her cause in part because her older sister, Rosemary, was born with an intellectual disability. Special Olympics programs spread across the globe during Shriver’s lifetime, and she received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her commitment to improving the lives, education and health-care services of those with intellectual disabilities. Shriver died in 2009 at the age of 88.