Magic's Greatest Trick

Nov. 15, 1999
Nov. 15, 1999

Table of Contents
Nov. 15, 1999

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College Basketball 1999

Magic's Greatest Trick

Walter Payton is dead. Payne Stewart is dead. Wilt Chamberlain
is dead. Joe DiMaggio is dead.

This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1999 issue Original Layout

And Magic Johnson is alive.

He's happier. He's richer. He's stronger than he was on that
unforgettable day, eight years ago this week, when he retired
because he was HIV positive.

He can bench 325 pounds. Weighing 245, he's about 20 pounds
heavier than he was in his prime, but now he's ripped. Muscle &
Fitness asked him to be on the cover. He's ordered all new suits.
He just had a triple-double in a Swedish league appearance,
despite being at least 10 years older than any other man on the
court. He says that his T-cell count is through the sunroof and
that there are "no viral accumulations" in his bloodstream.

"I guess people thought I'd be dead by now," Magic says, "but I'm
still here--and I'm still going to be here. I don't think about
dying. I just live."

Nobody else I know squeezes more out of one day of life than
Magic. What he did with his life in basketball--a state high
school title, an NCAA title, five NBA titles--is crumb cake
compared to what he's doing with it now. Magic is a better man
now, a bigger hero, a greater agent of good.

He's one of the most influential black businessmen in America. He
owns five Starbucks and has plans to open 10 more--nearly all of
them in black neighborhoods, including one in Crenshaw and one in
Harlem. He's got four Magic Johnson Theaters in inner-city
neighborhoods. He owns a TV and film production company, a
talent-management company (Vivica A. Fox, Steve Harvey, Mase are
clients) and a record label. He's part owner of four shopping
centers, a restaurant and Founders Bank. He's got a foundation
that since 1991 has given away $15 million, primarily to
community-based organizations dealing with HIV/AIDS education and
prevention programs. He's making truckloads of money in
neighborhoods in which white businessmen are scared to pull to a
stop, much less invest.

He hires black contractors to build businesses that he staffs
with black employees, many of whom are working for the first
time. When he built one multiplex, in Crenshaw, he hired 12
gangbangers to be part of the construction crew, and six of them
stayed on in full-time jobs. He has gone into areas where there
were mostly pawnshops and liquor stores, and put up gleaming
palaces that have stayed as clean as they were the day they

He's a player in politics. Bill Clinton has strolled Watts with
him. Gore and Bush have met with him. Bill Bradley calls. Yeah,
when you're a black businessman with a net worth of more than
$200 million and you can move huge blocs of votes with one
well-placed quote, your answering machine tends to fill up.

At the end of last season a reporter asked Charles Barkley why
more multimillionaire athletes don't give back to their roots.
Last month Barkley responded by writing out $1 million checks to
his college, his high school and an elementary school. But why
are he and Magic exceptions?

"Black athletes forget their neighborhoods," says Magic. "They
forget where they came from. They take their millions and move to
the suburbs, but if they'd just invest in our own neighborhoods,
they'd make more money there than anywhere else!"

Can you imagine the kind of change we'd see in the ghettos if a
certain slick-headed former Chicago Bull would follow Magic's
lead? "Oh, my God," says Magic. "Michael really would own the
world then."

No, HIV hasn't killed Magic Johnson. In a sense the virus has
been a gift to him. And to us. "It sounds funny," he says, "but
it's been a joy. I've been able to teach and help people."

He opens his theaters to health seminars. At his Starbucks he has
pamphlets that remind customers that AIDS is the No. 1 killer of
American black women aged 25 to 44, that blacks suffer the
highest mortality rate for breast cancer. (His sister-in-law,
Shirley Johnson, is a two-time survivor.) He gives away 30,000
toys a year, arranges for computer systems to be set up at
community centers, answers hundreds of HIV/AIDS-related letters a
week. He always was good with an assist.

Sports is leaving this century in the world's slowest parade,
marched to a dirge, in the worst kind of luxury box. But, thank
God, Magic Johnson is alive. "No, Magic is dead," he says with
that 10,000-candle smile. "They call me Mister Johnson now."

So nice to see you, Mr. Johnson.

Nobody else I know squeezes more out of one day of life than
Magic. He's a better man now, a bigger hero.