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Magic shows how to be a champ off the court
Great read on the greatest Laker and perhaps greatest player ever.
Magic shows how to be a champ off the court
By Chris Broussard
ESPN The Magazine
Updated: November 20, 2008, 4:42 PM ET
Around The NBA With Magic Johnson
I was 8 years old when I first heard of Magic Johnson. I was sitting in the Cincinnati apartment of one of my dad's friends, watching Magic lead Michigan State to victory over some team, and listening to my father and his pal talk about this 6-foot-8 point guard as if he were as extraordinary as an alien. Of course he was. Outside of Penny Hardaway, we haven't seen another one since.
From that day on, I was fascinated with the tall, lanky playmaker with the radiant smile and dazzling skills -- so fascinated that the following year I drew the ire of my fifth-grade classmates in Indianapolis when I boldly declared that I was pulling for Michigan State instead of Indiana State in the classic Magic-Bird NCAA final of 1979.
I told my buddies that Magic had moved Dr. J aside and become my favorite player. Heck, he'd even made Wilson's Bata sneakers cool.
For the next decade, Magic remained a childhood icon of mine, a larger-than-life figure I admired greatly because of his excellence on the basketball court. Now that I'm older, I still view Magic as one of the top-five players of all time, but I'm even more impressed by what he's done off the court.
What I like most about Magic's life after basketball is that he's used his fame, wealth and influence to economically empower African-Americans, insisting that his many businesses hire an overwhelming percentage of racial minorities. It's not an anti-white stance, but rather a pro-black stance (the two are not synonymous).
"People of other cultures respect me for that," Magic told me Monday night before his book-release party at the NBA Store in New York City. "Other cultures and races do it. Nobody says they're mad at the Jewish businessman when he hires mostly Jewish people. There are so many smart African-Americans that can run businesses and put together plans, but we have to be willing to hire them. When I hire mostly minorities and put minorities to work, people applaud that."
They applaud it because it's not just a nice and good thing to do, but because it's absolutely critical.
Even as the nation elected its first black president this month, huge segments of the African-American community remain in dire straits. The U.S. is rightly very concerned about the dire consequences of a 6.5 percent overall unemployment rate in October, but according to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for blacks in that month was 11.1 percent, nearly double that of whites (5.9), nearly triple that of Asians (3.8) and significantly higher than that of Hispanics (8.8). And that 11.1 figure does not include men who are incarcerated or not looking for work, factors which boost the black male unemployment rate in many major cities above 40 percent, according to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee report published in October.
Undoubtedly, this frighteningly high unemployment rate plays a large role in the black community's frighteningly high rates of incarceration, black-on-black crime, divorce and fatherlessness.
When I sat down with Magic on Monday, we didn't talk about how he made Greg Kelser an All-American or Pat Riley a Hall of Famer. We discussed these far weightier issues. And Magic was just as excited and animated as he was when he leaped into the arms of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after winning his first NBA game.
"What I've done off the court is bigger than what I did on it, because there will always be great players and guys who win championships every year," he said. "But to effect change in urban America, to put more than 40,000 minorities to work, to turn Harlem and South Central [Los Angeles] around and to make a difference in urban areas because of the investments I've made -- that will live long after I'm dead and gone. I love the championships and everything I did in basketball, but this is on a higher plane here."
Today's African-American athletes often get criticized for not speaking out on social and political issues (though several were vocal about their support of Barack Obama's presidential campaign). But nowadays the strong rhetoric of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Bill Russell is not really what's needed. As the harrowing unemployment figures suggest, what's needed is for black athletes and entertainers to use their money and their connections to create businesses and schools geared toward employing, educating and uplifting people of color.
Magic has done this by creating Magic Johnson Theaters and placing franchises such as T.G.I. Friday's, Starbucks and 24 Hour Fitness in inner-city communities -- stocked with mainly minority staffs, of course. The success of those businesses has drawn other franchises into urban environments. His hope is that many of today's NBA stars will follow his lead.
"We've got to invest our money into our communities to create jobs," Magic said of today's athletes. "We're all feeling good right now about Obama, but how we can really help our communities is by putting people to work. It's okay to 'bling' a little bit, but at some point, you've got to move past that and say, 'I want to change the future for our young people by investing in our communities."'
Magic, who had a white agent, Lon Rosen, during his playing days, said he's not saying black athletes should have only black agents. But he added that players cannot let their white agents steer them away from addressing African-American issues and impacting African-American communities. The needs of the black community are too great for many of its richest, most influential, most visible members to ignore.
"My agent may not be a minority, but I don't let him dictate who I'm going to hire," Magic said. "If America can say we'll put an African-American in the highest office in the land, then our African-American basketball players and football players and baseball players should be willing to say, 'I can hire an African-American to run my business.'"
When we finally got around to talking basketball, Magic told me LeBron James was the player who most reminds him of himself (no surprise there). He also likes that LeBron has created his own marketing company (LRMR) and put some of his friends to work running it.
"LeBron will be the next player whose work off the court really resonates outside of basketball," he said.
It's well known that LeBron wants to be a global icon. Learning some Magic will help him go a long way in achieving that goal.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.