In 1992, Magic Johnson arrived at the Barcelona El Prat Airport, geared up for the Olympics. He picked up his luggage, went through the immigration check and walked towards the team U.S.A bus where a host of reporters were waiting for him. Modest as always, Johnson calmly answered questions over his fight against AIDS, what his expectations from others teams were and the chances of him standing on the winner’s podium in the Pavelló Olímpic de Badalona. He made it clear that his mind was fixed on winning the Gold Medal and there was no greater pride than singing the Star Spangled Banner at the awards ceremony. Johnson further went onto highlight how much Coach Daly stressed on these superstars brushing aside their egos and play for the country.
For a man who had retired a year ago after being diagnosed with AIDS and constant recurrence of knee injuries, and to speak like this, nobody doubted how inspired the team was to win the gold medal. Magic Johnson was easily the most publicized American athlete in the Barcelona Olympics. He was the face of the original Dream Team.
Earvin Johnson, as he was born, was destined to being enshrined. While he is no longer the more popular figure in the NBA (thanks to Michael Jordan), Magic Johnson deserves mention as one of the true sporting heroes of this sport.
Johnson’s journey in the NBA was anything but a failure. He won every possible award from being the ultimate Rookie to a commercial sporting icon in the US. The Michigan State graduate is perhaps the greatest point guard to play in the NBA. His size was unmatchable while his vision, technique was unprecedented. Magic wasn’t just an exceptional talent but a well-respected figure amongst the NBA’s elite. Larry Bird who is Magic’s fiercest rival, accepted that he lost his joy of playing basketball once Magic retired, while Jordan expressed his fortune in not featuring under Magic’s era which he believed would have denied him to the glory of the 90s. Johnson was feared by his opponents but equally respected by them. The youngsters saw him as their “guru” while the more experienced bowed down to his words. Nobody governed the NBA like Magic did.
Earvin Johnson Junior was born in Lansing, Michigan to an assembly worker and a custodian. His upbringing was based on strong Church and family principles. He took up basketball only to pass time with his siblings and father. Soon, his talent was put into good use. During his sophomore year of his high school, he recorded a triple-double (double digits in rebounds, points and assists). Only then, did his coach covet him with the nickname: Magic. After winning a state championship game for Lansing-Everett (his high school), Johnson decided to play college basketball at Michigan State, where the coach promised him the point guard position. The team already boasted the likes of other stars like Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser, and adding Magic put them in contention for a national title. Ironically, the player who he faced in the National Championship Game while in his sophomore year of college was his future NBA nemesis, Larry Bird. The Spartan (Michigan State University’s team name) and Bird played what many experts describe as “the greatest showdown in college basketball history.”
However, basketball fans nearly lost this soon to become idolized figure to academics. Johnson was content on finishing his degree in Communications and pursuing a career in sports commentary. He changed his mind and signed for the 1979 Draft. As predicted, he was drafted number 1 overall by the Lakers. At LA, Magic Johnson was touted to now solving the mystery that eluded the Lakers and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (the best player at that time) from the NBA Title. Speaking after his draft, Johnson expressed his delight in playing next to the player he worshiped all his life. Here was the beginning to the legacy of Magic Johnson.
In a career that spanned 12 seasons, Johnson won five NBA titles, three MVPs, three Finals MVPs, was a 12-time All-Star and a two time All-Star game MVP. His stats after he announced his retirement read 19.5 PPG, 11.2 PPG and 7.2 RPG, the best ever recorded by a point guard. But what defined his entire career was his rivalry with Bird, which as previously mentioned, started in college. Johnson and Bird represented the two biggest franchises in the NBA’s history. Together, they marketed the best brands on earth which was only eclipsed by Football’s Diego Maradona. Such was the popularity of this duo that each time they faced each other on court, TV Ratings shot up. Bird, when asked what does he the morning before the game, he admitted to checking Johnson’s box score only so that he could better it. Johnson, similarly, spoke of the 82 game regular season as 80 plus two Lakers-Celtics games, or 80 plus two regular season shots to kill the Bird. But these bitter foes on the court were strong friends outside. As Johnson announced that he is HIV positive, nobody in the basketball fraternity was more deeply affected than Bird. The Indiana State product, according to his teammates and wife, was so upset that his performances in training camps and practices drastically declined. When Magic Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Larry Bird adamantly requested to do the formal honors. If there were two players who saved the NBA from bankruptcy in the 80s, it certainly was Bird and Magic. More often than not, their “friendly” rivalry did.
Despite the tragic announcement about his medical condition, Magic Johnson showed the world what he does best – fight. Several letters from his fans addressed directly to him asking him how long would he live. The charismatic self that he possesses, Magic only would reply, “as long as you would want me to.” 23 years following his announcement, Magic Johnson lives. The Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise Johnson breathed for, retired his jersey in 1992 describing him as the definition of humility and elegance. Like his fellow countryman, Arthur Ashe who too fought AIDS before succumbing to it, Johnson toured the world speaking on the unattractiveness of being HIV positive, thereby encouraging safer and smarter sex. A role-model for many, Johnson can be classified as demigod amongst basketball’s most passionate devotes.
Today, he is a stakeholder of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a sports expert on ESPN and a community activist. Despite his extravagant wealth and the fortune that he has accumulated, Johnson endows in a simple living with his family and close friends. The man may not be the biggest sporting icon in the sport of basketball but sure is an inspiration to several. Magic Johnson embodies the success of any child’s dream and at the same time, symbolizes inner will and a fighting spirit.
Doug Smith, an active sportswriter for over 30 years sums it up best. On his sports blog, he says, “There are those who want our athletes to use their power and their pedestal and their iconic status for the good of the greater cause. No one – well, very few that I can think of in the world of professional sports since I’ve been hanging around the games – has done it like Magic.”