An effervescent 6'9" point guard whose wizardry as a passer put a new dazzle in team play, Magic Johnson revolutionized the game of basketball with the Los Angeles Lakers during their 1980s dynasty. A Michigan native, Johnson led the Michigan State University Spartans to a national championship in 1979 in a ballyhooed shoot-out with Indiana State, led by hot-shooting forward Larry Bird. He left school early and was selected No. 1 in the National Basketball Association draft by the Lakers. Joining legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson revived the franchise, helped propel it to an NBA title in his rookie season and earned the Finals MVP honor along the way. He would lead the Lakers to five championships through the '80s, with two against rival Bird's Boston Celtics. Johnson stunned the media with his announcement in 1991 that he had contracted HIV and was retiring. After two short-lived comeback attempts and a brief stint as the Lakers' coach, he settled into TV work and branched into entertainment-related business ventures that would include a famously awful late-night talk show for Fox. He remained in the limelight as studio analyst for NBA broadcasts, including ABC/ESPN. One of the most prominent and inspirational figures living with HIV, Johnson played a pivotal role not only in the Lakers "Showtime" dynasty but in reviving the fortunes of the once moribund NBA.
He was born Earvin Johnson, Jr. on Aug. 14, 1959 in Lansing, MI, to Earvin Johnson Sr., an autoworker with General Motors, and Christine Johnson, a custodian. Earvin Jr. took to basketball from an early age. He grew into a tall adolescent, but he idolized professional point guards such as Earl the Pearl Monroe and Marques Haynes and worked to hone his ball handing and passing skills. At 15, he was already the star of the basketball team of Lansing's Everett High School and at one point logged one of basketball's rarest statistical performances, the "triple double." When Johnson scored 36 points, pulled down 18 rebounds and dished out 16 assists in one game, a Lansing State Journal sportswriter dubbed him "Magic." It aptly fit the contagious energy and joy with which Johnson played the game, and the moniker stuck. Johnson's Everett team tabulated a 27-1 record his senior year and won the state championship.
Much-recruited by major university basketball programs, Johnson chose to stay home and join the struggling program at Michigan State in East Lansing. Coach Jud Heathcote sealed the deal by assuring him that, in spite of Johnson's power forward size, he would be the team's point guard. In tandem with forward Greg Kelser and center Jay Vincent, Johnson quickly turned the program's won-loss record around. The Spartans went from a 10-17 team to 25-5 Johnson's freshman year, which proved good enough to land MSU a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The next year, Johnson led the Spartans through the tournament to the Final Four. Michigan State won the 1979 national championship in an epic game against Indiana State, which was led by its own all-American forward, Larry Bird. Johnson averaged 17.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game for the season, which he capped by being named the tournament's MVP. He decided to forego his last two years of college and declared for the NBA draft. The Los Angeles Lakers chose him that summer with the No. 1 pick. The next fall, Bird joined the Boston Celtics.
Both players immediately keyed turnarounds of their respective franchises in the 1979-1980 season. Johnson helped put a spark back into the game of the Lakers' perennial All-Star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won the league's regular season MVP award. Johnson was voted into his first All-Star Game and went on to lead the Lakers to a dominant 60-22 regular season record, averaging 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists a game. The Lakers stormed into the NBA Finals, taking on Boston's East Coast rival, the Philadelphia 76ers, led by ABA/NBA legend Julius Erving. The Lakers won three of the first five games, but in the fifth, Abdul-Jabbar severely sprained his ankle. Coach Paul Westhead made the curious call to start his point guard in Abdul-Jabbar's place in Game 6. Johnson dominated the game, tabulating 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and 42 points in the 123-107 Lakers win, sealing the title and earning him the Finals MVP trophy. His sophomore season proved a troubled one as an injury severely limited his regular season play, and the Lakers went down early in the playoffs while Bird's Celtics eventually took the title.
In the 1981-82 season, a clash between Johnson and Westhead arose over Johnson's desire to play in an up-tempo, fast-break style that better fit his skills. Owner Jerry Buss sided with Johnson, fired Westhead and elevated assistant coach Pat Riley, who greenlit what became known as the Lakers' "Showtime" offense. Johnson played through some catcalls during the season, but led the Lakers back to the Finals against the Sixers. The Lakers won their second title of the Magic era and Johnson again took Finals MVP honors. The Sixers next year bolstered their ranks with superstar center Moses Malone, and when the two teams met again in 1983 Finals, the Lakers found themselves outmatched, and the title went back to Philly. Johnson upped his game the next season with an astonishing average of 13.1 assists a game to go along with his 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds, and he propelled the Lakers to a much-hyped Finals rematch with Bird and his Celtics.
The series went to a decisive seventh game, but in the final minutes, with the Celtics up three points, Johnson turned the ball over to seal Boston's victory - the last of a series of uncharacteristic mistakes he made throughout the series. Johnson evened the score to cap the '84-85 season when the Lakers bested the Celtics in six games to take another title. After being bounced from the Conference Finals in the 1985-86 playoffs, Johnson stepped up his offensive game for the 1986-87 season. He boosted his points-per-game average to 23.9 and earned the NBA's regular season MVP award, then upped his line to a phenomenal 26.2, 13.0 and 8.0 to earn the Finals MVP as the Lakers again downed the Celtics in six. The Finals CBS broadcasts that year gave testimony to a rejuvenated league; games drew an average 15.9 rating, whereas the NBA's crown jewel event had not even rated double figures in Johnson and Bird's initial pro years. Later that year, Riley made the bold pronouncement that the Lakers would win back-to-back titles. The Lakers indeed returned to the Finals and faced off against the Detroit Pistons in their infamous "Bad Boys" phase, as led by Johnson's longtime friend Isiah Thomas. Behind James Worthy's Finals MVP performance, the Lakers fulfilled Riley's promise and won the series in seven games.
The Pistons added more potent offensive weapons for the 1988-89 season and, in spite of another regular season MVP award for Johnson, the Lakers would not fare nearly as well upon the teams' rematch in the Finals. After the Pistons took Game 1, Johnson went down with a hamstring injury in Game 2 and the Pistons swept the series in four games. With Abdul-Jabbar retiring, the Lakers' "Showtime" dynasty ended. Though Johnson would win a second consecutive regular season MVP in the 1989-90 season, the team failed to make the playoffs. He managed to bring a retooled Lakers back to the NBA Finals the next year, but the team was outmatched by the Eastern Conference's rising power. The relentless defense of the Chicago Bulls' shooting guard Michael Jordan and small forward Scottie Pippen stymied Johnson, and the newbies took the series in five games, beginning the Bulls dynasty. The next fall, Johnson stunned the world, becoming the most prominent heterosexual public figure to reveal he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Johnson played coy as to how he contracted the virus, having just married Cookie Kelly, who in turn was pregnant with their first child. Both of the latter thankfully tested negative.
Johnson later revealed his exposure as the likely result of the libertine lifestyle so widely available to professional athletes. He announced his immediate retirement from basketball, as well as the establishment of an eponymous foundation to fund HIV research. But he remained on the NBA's All-Star ballot and brought still more attention to the then misunderstood disease when fans voted him a starting spot on the Western Conference's team. Lakers teammates as well as fellow all-stars argued that an on-court injury to Johnson could lead to other players contracting HIV, but the controversy became a "teachable moment." Commissioner David Stern weighed in to allay fears and the NBA instituted what became known colloquially as the "Magic Johnson rule," which required officials to stop play if they spotted a player bleeding, so Johnson suited up. He scored 25 points, dished out 9 assists and pulled down five boards and led the West to a 40-point win. The performance earned Johnson a last MVP trophy. He rejoined the NBA's best again in summer 1992 as a member of the U.S. national basketball team, which fielded pro players for the first time. With Johnson playing alongside Jordan, Bird and a raft of future Hall-of-Famers, the so-called "Dream Team" would roll to the gold medal at that summer's Barcelona Summer Olympics - though not without similar fears aired by opposing players that even Johnson's perspiration might transmit the virus.
Kneejerk misgivings even continued in the NBA as Johnson that fall mulled a comeback. He joined the Lakers training camp and played some preseason games but aborted the comeback when controversy among NBA colleagues again bubbled up. Also that year, Johnson brought his celebrity status to the National Commission on AIDS. He resigned within a year in protest of the Bush administration's failure to take meaningful action on the crisis. In the private sector, Johnson became both client and spokesman for HIV-maintenance treatments from pharmaceutical companies Abbott Laboratories and GlaxoSmithKline. The next season, he rejoined the struggling Lakers as their head coach after Randy Pfund's late-season firing, but the team still struggled and Johnson said he would decline to return to coach the next season. He paid $10 million for 5 percent share of the Lakers that summer, but his on-court basketball jones persisted. He made another comeback attempt the second half of the 1994-95 season. Much slower than in his point guard days, Johnson moved to the power forward spot and availed himself well with per-game averages of 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds. He called it quits again at season's end.
NBA broadcasters such as NBC and TNT made various attempts to exploit Johnson's star, but he proved less than nimble at spontaneous game analysis. In 1998, Fox attempted to translate Johnson's magic to a different medium, a late-night talk show dubbed "The Magic Hour." His talents as comedian and interviewer proved amateurish and the show, axed after only two months, was widely ridiculed as a textbook case of media overreach. He kept a behind-the-scenes hand in show business, as his private company, Magic Johnson Enterprises, expanded with a chain of urban-area movie theaters as well as a production company. At the turn of the century, Magic Johnson Entertainment bankrolled its first films, the period basketball-themed tale "Passing Glory" (TNT, 1999) and the African-American-cast romantic comedy "Brown Sugar" (2000). Johnson took executive producer credits on both projects. In 2008, ESPN hired Johnson as an occasional contributor to its league news and game analysis shows as well as sister network ABC's Sunday pregame show, "NBA Countdown" (2008- ). Johnson divested his share of the Lakers in 2010 and two years later put in with a group that included financial services multinational Guggenheim Partners and former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten to make a bid for the troubled Los Angeles Dodgers. The group won the bid in March 2012, but Johnson and business partner Peter Guber sold their stake in the team in 2014. That same year, Johnson bought WNBA team the Los Angeles Sparks and nascent Major League Soccer team Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC). In February 2017, Johnson became president of basketball operations for his Los Angeles Lakers.
By Matthew Grimm
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Played for Michigan State University
Drafted first overall by NBA team Los Angeles Lakers
Named NCAA Division I Tournament Most Outstanding Player
With Michigan State, first played against Larry Bird during NCAA Championships; team won over Bird's Indiana State
Signed 25-year, $25-million contract with the Lakers, then the highest-paying contract in sports history
Shared friendly yet competitive rivalry with Boston Celtics player Larry Bird; their respective teams played each other in three out of four NBA finals from 1984-87
Won his first NBA Most Valuable Player award
Retired from professional basketball following announcement of HIV-positive status
Created the Magic Johnson Foundation to help combat HIV
Joined star-studded squad dubbed "the Dream Team" at Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain; team won gold
Replaced Randy Pfund as Lakers head coach
Became minority owner of Lakers after purchasing five percent share of team; stepped down as coach
Opened chain of movie theaters named Magic Johnson Theatres
Hosted and executive produced short-lived late night talk show "The Magic Hour" (Fox)
Received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
Executive produced romantic comedy "Brown Sugar"
Inducted into Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
Created contract food service with Sodexo USA called Sodexo-Magic
Joined "ESPN's NBA Countdown" as studio analyst
Published <i>When The Game Was Ours</i>, co-written with Larry Bird (with Jackie MacMullan)
Famous rivalry documented in HBO's "Magic and Bird"
Featured in documentary "The Dream Team"
Became co-owner of professional baseball team the L.A. Dodgers
Became president of basketball operations for the L.A. Lakers