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We Believe In Magic

Dec. 15, 2014
Dec. 15, 2014

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Dec. 15, 2014

EDITOR'S LETTER
INBOX
Sportsman of the Year
POINT AFTER
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We Believe In Magic

Earvin Johnson has tirelessly invested in African-American communities and advocated for those affected by HIV/AIDS—and, despite his own diagnosis, the smile has never left his face

WHEN HE arose on the morning of Oct. 25, 1991, which would turn out to be the worst day of Earvin (Magic) Johnson's life, a glorious path stretched out before him. "I knew exactly where I was going," says Johnson, whose vision on the basketball court was never questioned. A few more seasons—he was only four months removed from a ninth trip to the NBA Finals with the Lakers—an Olympic gold medal trip to Barcelona and the expansion of his nascent business empire lay ahead.

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 2014 issue Original Layout

But on a visit to his family physician that day, the 32-year-old Johnson received the news that he had contracted HIV, which at that time was widely considered tantamount to full-blown AIDS and death. Dying young was not part of his plan. "That kind of put everything on hold for a while," Johnson says, epically understating what was really going through his mind. For even this most wide-eyed of optimists was devastated, uncertain how long he was going to be drawing breath, let alone whether Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE), a company he had formed in 1987, would ever produce more than T-shirts or Pepsi (two of his early ventures).

Here's more epic understatement: It's 23 years after the worst day of his life, and Magic is back on his path. MJE, a multitentacled conglomerate that focuses on products and services for minority communities, has an asset value of $1 billion. The Magic Johnson Foundation, which he started soon after he discovered he was infected, backs a host of initiatives, including minority scholarships, community empowerment centers and, most prominent, 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 horrendously overscheduled) and by all accounts, including his doctor's, healthy. He gives freely from his own pocket, bestowing millions upon, among others, his church and Michigan State, his alma mater.

He is the father of three, grandfather of two and husband of one—Cookie, who was his bride of nine weeks when he announced that he was HIV positive.

In fact, the worst day of Magic's life turned out to be a most fortuitous day in the global fight against HIV/AIDS. In the weeks that followed his Nov. 7, 1991, press conference in Los Angeles—10 riveting minutes that will endure as a where-were-you-when-you-heard? touchstone—HIV testing spiked all around the country. In New York City it rose by 60%, according to New Yorker writer Michael Specter, who covered the epidemic for The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Dr. David Ho, who had been in the trenches of AIDS research and treatment since 1981, witnessed Johnson's influence. "When Earvin got his diagnosis, he became the poster boy for the disease," says Ho, who has been Johnson's doctor since '91. "And as he remained healthy and in the public eye, Earvin became a symbol of hope that this disease is not a death sentence. As much as anyone in the world, he remains that today."

And so for contributions personal and professional, for turning personal tragedy into global triumph, for staying a course that at first seemed fatal and was never felicitous—his ever-present beaming countenance notwithstanding—SI presents Earvin Magic Johnson with its second Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award. He is linked to the first recipient (2008), the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, by the focus of his work: the unrecognized and the underserved. Shriver championed the intellectually handicapped; Johnson, the ostracized HIV/AIDS community and the minority consumer.

Like Shriver, who as the founder of the Special Olympics crusaded for special-needs children when much of the world wanted to warehouse them, Magic does not hear the word no. He weaves his way around and through challenges, as he once did quarterbacking some of the NBA's greatest teams, and he represents a refreshing deviation from the normal life course of America's Retired Athlete. He does not make his millions (and, to be clear, he does make millions) by merely showing up, shaking hands and shanking 5-irons. "I only played golf once," said Magic, "and I'm glad I'm over it. Think how much time I would've wasted."

He is, as was Shriver before him, opinionated, blind to obstacles and self-believing to the point of arrogance. Oh, how happy it made him when he even got the best of his good buddy/old rival in a game that His Airness tried first.

In 1994, Michael Jordan played Double A baseball and hit .202.

In 2012, Johnson bought the Dodgers and hit a home run.

ONLY ONCE did the subject of death enter his mind. "I didn't really believe I would die," he says, "but I wanted to get some things in order. I wanted to talk about it once and get it over with."

By early 1992 the magic in Magic had been rekindled. Commissioner David Stern had given the retired icon an exemption to play in the All-Star Game—"As much as anything, that turned it around for Earvin," says Lon Rosen, his longtime friend and adviser and now a Dodgers executive—and he was determined to join the Dream Team in Barcelona. He began to work out and watch his diet. In short, he turned down the role of Dead Man Walking. It was full speed ahead on his life plan.

So he presented himself in the office of Hollywood exec Peter Guber, who was running Columbia Pictures Entertainment. "Earvin comes in and says, 'I'm going to tell you a story,'" remembers Guber, who has green-lit films like A Few Good Men and Philadelphia and now co-owns the Warriors. "Earvin was very animated, very sure of himself. He says, 'What if I told you there's a giant untapped territory, an enormous entertainment-seeking audience that speaks English, loves movies and is not being served by the movie community?'

"I said, 'I'm listening.' And Magic says, 'It's 20 blocks from here. Baldwin Hills. Minority community. They have movies but not multiplexes. The theaters are broken down, and they have inferior concessions. We can give them what they want and demonstrate good business sense.'"

Guber, who is now one of Johnson's Dodgers' partners, was hooked. The result of their joint venture was a string of Magic Johnson Loews Theatres in L.A. Johnson's next big sit-down was with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, to whom he gave a similar spiel. That resulted in a partnership with Starbucks and an offshoot company called Urban Coffee Opportunities.

And with those two deals, the world's most famous HIV-positive citizen stepped into the major leagues of Big Business.

Johnson was unafraid to plunge into the deep waters of stereotype without fear of drowning. He told Guber: African-American moviegoers like to yell at the screen and drink sweet beverages. So at Magic Johnson Theaters shushing is taboo and grape soda is on tap. His Starbucks served up sweet potato pie and played more Marvin Gaye than classic rock. The minority community made up the clientele as well as the workforce. And along with newspapers and neighborhood announcements, customers could pick up brochures about HIV/AIDS.

Understand that Magic is no Mother Teresa. He's almost always made money, and lots of it. He bought 4.5% of the Lakers in 1994 for a reported $10 million, and that had nothing to do with altruism. When he sold his piece of the team and his Starbucks holdings in 2010, he made a combined $100 million. The value of the Dodgers increased by 24% last year. His net worth is an estimated $500 million.

But his focus on the minority community, which has driven many of his ventures, has created a different paradigm in the business world. The MJE conglomerate includes holdings in ASPiRE, a television network targeting African-Americans; Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies, a program aimed at helping high school dropouts get their diplomas; and Clear Health Alliance, a health-care provider with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS patients, gay men of color being the fastest-growing population in the U.S. to contract HIV and AIDS.

"I get asked if I'm trying to help minorities or make money," says Johnson. "My answer is, I'm trying to do both."

Johnson says that even in the early days of his ventures he was accepted without question. "Nobody ever 'forgot' to shake my hand in a boardroom," he says. Still, at least two companies with which he had major endorsement deals, Pepsi and Nestlé, scaled back their partnerships after his HIV announcement.

And though the smile rarely left his face, things didn't go smoothly for him in the basketball world.

IN 1984 a 13-year-old hemophiliac from Kokomo, Ind., named Ryan White became infected with HIV from a blood transfusion. Over the next two years there was national debate about whether Ryan should be allowed to attend public school. He died in 1990, at 18, having been admitted to his school but forced to move with his family from Kokomo when the threats got so bad.

In 1986 columnist William F. Buckley proposed the following: "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."

In 1991, when Johnson announced he had HIV, AIDS had claimed celebrities such as actor Rock Hudson, Broadway director Michael Bennett and entertainer Liberace. About 10 million people worldwide—mostly men, though the disease was beginning to spread to women—were infected with HIV, and most of them were expected to die.

"Patients were dying left and right," says Dr. Ho, "and very few people paid attention, including the government, which considered it a gay men's disease."

This was the environment into which Johnson stepped.

There is no doubt that Magic's fame made him less stigmatized after his disclosure. He was never told, as Ryan White was, that he couldn't enter a public building. But after Stern gave him the O.K. to play in the '92 All-Star Game, many players decried the decision, including some who would be on the court with him that day. (All of them, however, came forward to shake his hand when he had been voted the game's MVP.)

The Australian team doctor called on his team to boycott the Olympics because of Magic's participation. (It never happened.) In Barcelona the Dream Team was revered, but, still, a foreign journalist asked Magic, "How does it feel knowing you won't watch your children grow up?"

When Johnson got back to the States from Barcelona, several NBA players, most notably his Olympic teammate Karl Malone, expressed reservations about playing against Magic. He walked around knowing that his perspiration was an international issue, every droplet, as some saw it, a potential time bomb. And when a photo of a gloveless L.A. trainer Gary Vitti tending to a cut on Magic's arm went viral—or what passed for viral in 1992—even Magic got discouraged. He left the Lakers, made an ill-advised return and finally retired for good in 1996.

As the years rolled on, it became clear, if it hadn't already, that Magic had made a significant mark on HIV/AIDS awareness. He was the most famous designee of a new medical genus: long-term nonprogressor. But then a curious thing happened that put Johnson back in the critical crosshairs. His healthy profile was seen as a deterrent to people getting tested. While fewer were dying of the disease, more were actually getting it, a twisted good-news, bad-news scenario that researchers are still pondering. Ho, who is the scientific director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City, estimates that 35 million people worldwide are now living with HIV or AIDS, roughly the same number who have died of the disease since the dawn of the epidemic.

"I realize that people look at me and say, 'Magic's doing O.K., so why do I have to worry about it?'" says Johnson. "People think, I'm going back to the same lifestyle. I'm going to be like Magic Johnson and live a long time. So they're not getting tested and not practicing safe sex. I try to get out the message that early detection saved my life. But a lot of people aren't hearing it. So I got credit for spreading awareness, and then I got criticized when people started living."

It's difficult to understand how Johnson could be blamed for staying alive. And here's the larger point: Magic has never publicly expressed despair about his condition or rancor toward his critics. He showed the world a smile and talked only of hope, his equanimity much needed in what was—lest we forget—a desperate time when the disease was winning almost every battle.

"Instead of retreating, Earvin engaged and changed the global debate on HIV and AIDS with the force of his personality, his courage in fighting and through the efforts of his foundation," says Stern, who retired earlier this year after a 30-year run. "Magic has set the standard for postcareer social responsibility."

That Johnson handled the disease so well did not surprise a certain teacher back in his hometown of East Lansing, Mich.

"I was lucky enough to have Earvin in my first year of teaching fifth grade," says Greta Dart, now retired, "and he made life easy and wonderful for me. He was charismatic and popular, and he kept the other kids in line. But what I remember the most is that on the playground, when he was a captain, which was most of the time, he never picked the best kids for his team. He picked the underdogs. Then he went out and tried to win."

And so we have reached this point without speaking of championships, fast breaks, no-look passes and baby hooks, all those things that first got the smiling kid from Michigan noticed. More and more Magic Johnson has morphed into Citizen Johnson, a man driven by—yes—a bottom line, but also a good heart and big dreams. His has been an extraordinary life, busy, noisy, complicated and—best of all—much longer than many once thought it would be. "I'm just getting started," says Johnson. "There's lots to do."

"Earvin became a symbol of hope," says his doctor, David Ho, "that this disease is not a death sentence."
PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck Sports IllustratedPHOTODANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERSCITIZEN MAGIC Even in retirement, Johnson has commanded attention (clockwise from top left): Justin Bieber in 2011; Dale Earnhardt Jr. in '07; President Bush in 1992; Paris Hilton (right) and Paula Abdul in 2006; Kenny Smith (right) and Tracy Morgan in '05; Hillary Clinton in '08.PHOTOJOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR[See caption above]PHOTODENNIS COOK/AP[See caption above]PHOTODARRYL DENNIS/ICON SPORTSWIRE[See caption above]PHOTOFRANK MULLEN/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above]PHOTOBRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS[See caption above]PHOTOJEFF SCHRIER/MLIVE.COM/LANDOVBUSINESS AS USUAL Johnson has (left to right, top to bottom) preached the importance of a scholarship program; opened a chain of theaters; slung espresso at his own Starbucks; greeted patrons outside his TGI Friday's restaurant; and mingled with Dodgers legends as an owner.PHOTODAMIAN DOVARGANES/AP[See caption above]TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOJAYNE KAMIN-ONCEA/UPI/LANDOV[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PLAYING)BACK IN ACTION Nearly five years after his stunning announcement (above), Johnson returned to the court for 36 games.PHOTOCRAIG FUJII/AP (ANNOUNCEMENT)[See caption above]