In 1992, a year after Johnson shared his HIV diagnosis with the world, a young man named John Brigham interviewed Magic Johnson. At the time Brigham was executive sports editor for the Albany Times Union, and his article was going to be published in The Advocate, an LGBTQ publication. “When I went into the interview there was a secret that I had, which was that I was HIV positive,” said Brigham. “It was interesting sitting there, thinking we’re both under a death sentence, because this is 1992. It wasn’t a manageable disease.” The interview was Johnson’s opportunity to extend a hand out to the gay community and become a face for a then deadly disease.
Twenty-five years later, alive and well, Johnson stood up from his assigned seat in the War Memorial Gym with moderator Rick Welts, COO and President of the Golden State Warriors.
He walked down to the first few rows of the audience and remained there for the entirety of the talk. With a smile that stretched from one side of the room to the other, “larger than life” doesn’t quite describe Johnson. He literally commanded the room.
I Don’t sit, I Lead
Born in Lansing, Mich. to a family of ten (six sisters and three brothers), Johnson grew up thinking he would be going to Sexton High School, then a basketball powerhouse. However, the cutoff for the bus lines were drawn in front of Johnson’s house before he had a chance to start high school. It forced him to go to the school across town, Everett High School, not known for its basketball.
“The first couple weeks of school there was fighting every day” said Johnson. Early in the year, the principal called Johnson into the school along with a white football player. He told them they both were going to make it so the black kids and the white kids stopped fighting. At fifteen, Johnson felt like the principal had chosen the wrong person. But the principal insisted.
“So at that moment in time, that’s when I grew up and became a leader. I went to the gym, talked to the students, and sure enough after that everything was good. I’m glad I went to high school there,” recalls Johnson. “It made me grow up as a young man and also interact with people that didn’t look like me because that’s what the world is,” he said.
After leading Everett to a the state championship for the first time in history, Johnson’s basketball career started to take off. His Michigan State team would go on to the national championship, beating Indiana State 75-64. A young man named Larry Bird was on the team.
Larry Bird, a Competitor and Force for Good
Back at War Memorial Gym, even the mention of Bird’s name garners hooting and hollering. Indeed, the rivalry lives throughout all these years. And while Johnson smiles and takes it in for a moment, his face and tone ultimately becomes serious. “Sometimes your competitor can make you better. I don’t care whether that is in business or in life. [Bird] made me a better basketball player, a better person and a better man.” While Bird practiced shooting around a thousand or two thousand shots a day in the court, Johnson felt compelled to shoot three thousand. “I owe a lot to Larry Bird,” admitted Johnson.
Johnson’s career skyrocketed in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Within a decade, Johnson participated in a stunning five NBA championships, and collected three NBA Finals MVP awards and three NBA Most Valuable Player awards. But in 1991 Johnson got a call that changed his life. He was diagnosed with HIV.
Positivity in the Face of Peril
Johnson recounts the moment in vivid detail. “I was already on the floor crying. Not knowing what would happen,” he says. “And then I had to drive home to tell my wife who was pregnant with our son Earvin.”
He didn’t know what sort of effect it was going to have on his wife and son, and even told his wife that he would understand if she left him. “When I said it, she hit me upside my head so hard,” Johnson said. “She said we’re going to deal with this together and we’re going to beat this together. So that really helped me.”
Johnson would take the skills he learned on the court as a leader and apply them to being a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS after his diagnosis. “I went to 300 colleges and high schools and 300 churches right after that. And was speaking all across the country about HIV and AIDS,” he said. He spoke to not only those with HIV/AIDS, but also family members of those with the disease.
While Johnson would return to basketball periodically after his diagnosis, his interests turned to business. But as a basketball player, he didn’t know the ins and outs of the industry. So Johnson relinquished the role of leader temporarily and seeked help. “I’m smart enough to say I don’t have those skills sets so I need to acquire business skill sets. So I got mentors,” said Johnson.
Johnson has put his business acumen into a wide variety of industries. From movie theaters to Starbucks, to becoming the owner of the L.A. Lakers. These successes are what Johnson drives home in his message to students. He stresses the fact that for students and especially college athletes, it’s all about the passion. “I just want you to do great things. And whatever you do, don’t let it be about money. Let money take care of itself,” said Johnson. This is the baton that he hopes to handoff to students: be genuine in your intentions.
Featured Photo: Bek Black gets a photo with Johnson. Black is a forward-center for the women’s basketball team. Hursh Karkhanis/FOGHORN