"All of those guys have an iron will": Roland Lazenby on writing Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe and Jerry West's biographies (Exclusive)

Roland Lazenby exclusive interview on his Magic Johnson biography
Roland Lazenby exclusive interview on his Magic Johnson biography

Of course, the in-depth biography details the role Magic Johnson played with revitalizing the NBA, winning five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and becoming arguably the league’s best point guard of all time. But as longtime NBA writer Roland Lazenby details in “Magic: The Life of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson,” the future Hall-of-Famer faced strong skepticism on how he would fare as the Lakers’ No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.

“Nearly every basketball mind in America was questioning how Magic Johnson would be able to make it in the NBA,” Lazenby told Sportskeeda. “That included Magic himself. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t have a lot of confidence about it. Dr. Jack Ramsey, Portland’s coach, didn’t think he could be an NBA point guard. Jerry West had his serious doubts.”

Why all the skepticism on whether Johnson had the Magic touch?

“It was just hard to see where he would play in the NBA,” Lazenby said. “He had that high dribble and a little bit of a weak left hand as Jack Ramsey pointed out. He didn’t have a great jump shot. He shot more of a set shot. People loved his enthusiasm, but you just couldn’t project him.”

History will show that Johnson proved those projections to be grossly incorrect. Lazenby’s 778-page biography on Johnson, slated for an Oct. 24, 2024 release, details that journey beginning with his upbringing in Lansing, Mich., becoming an intriguing prospect at Michigan State and the Lakers and morphing into a successful businessman following his abrupt retirement in 1991 after testing positive for HIV. Lazenby spoke to Sportskeeda about those topics and more.

Editor’s note: The following one-on-one conversation has been edited and condensed.

What stories in the book most stuck with you?

Lazenby:

“My effort here was to tell a lot of the unreported story of Magic Johnson and just exactly what went on in Lansing, Mich. I encountered some great kids. But in all of these interviews I did with his coaches, advisors and teammates, Magic Johnson is an extraordinary person today and as a teenager. He had some reading issues and other things that could’ve held him back. But he is without a doubt one of the most remarkable adolescents that I’ve encountered. It has been a joy to go back and put together all of the things he did in those formative years in his life.”

"He went into his sophomore year at Lansing just a few days after he turned 15. There was all of this racial trouble in Lansing and at Everett High School. They were in the process over several years of busing students to achieve racial integration. Magic was identified before he ever played a minute of basketball for the high school. He was identified as the school administration as someone they would need to further the cause of integration and to calm all of the violence that plagued the busing and integration process. Magic, himself, protested when the principal informed him that he would play a role. Magic said, ‘I just got here to this school. How am I going to do that?’ The principal responded, ‘You’re going to figure it out.” Earvin did.”

Magic Johnson was not a sure thing, despite his no. 1 overall status
Magic Johnson was not a sure thing, despite his no. 1 overall status

You’ve written biographies on various Hall-of-Famers, including Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and now Magic Johnson. What do you think are the common threads and the differences among those four people?

Lazenby:

“What all of these guys have is an iron will to go with their drive and athletic ability. They’re not going to bend. They’re not going to break. They’re going to make good things happen that other good athletes can’t do. I had a conversation once with Jerry West about greatness. Anytime in the NBA, you can count the truly great players on one hand. There are often many good players. But it’s deceptive. You may think somebody is a great player, but they really don’t have the will to get it done. It requires other things – good fortune and health.”

"Jerry West’s mother was a country girl [Cecil]. She was an intense perfectionist. Jerry’s adolescent trauma was the death of his older brother, David, in the Korean War. Jerry and his mother both suffered a nervous breakdown over the death of his beloved mother. Michael Jordan had his troubles to overcome and battled all kinds of disappointment and fatherly disapproval. Kobe came in and struggled because he was so young out of high school. Then Phil Jackson and Tex Winter came to the Lakers and started winning championships. Through a series of events, Kobe nearly destroyed his career. But he had the ironwill to rebuild it in premier fashion, but it was not easy."

"With Magic, he has an older brother, Larry, who is among the first group of Black students to go to all-white Everett High School. That first year of integration, the white coaches kicked five Black kids off the junior varsity team. One of them was Earvin’s brother, Larry. The other four took it okay. They understood they had not been to practice. But Larry got very angry and told the coaches he hated them and that they ruined his career and that Earvin would never play for them. It set up this test of wills and trauma. It was remarkable how in the midst of all of the violence that Earvin came into that and was a presence. He had a seriousness about him as a 15-year-old. He represented a multi-racial belief as a teenager with the way he was on the basketball team, , the way the team came together and the way the coaches let Earvin be Earvin. That all created a pretty fascinating story as the community dealt with these problems. We don’t understand in a lot of ways on our how our culture integrated around basketball. That was the case at Michigan. All of this deep racial division suddenly began to ease just a bit because kids were teammates and classmates together. Earvin just had all of this emotional intelligence at a young age. He had inclusiveness and leadership skills. He was taking white and black players under his wing.”

Anything you discovered the book that changed how you viewed Magic than what you already knew covering him over the years?

Lazenby:

“One of my first interviews with Jerry West was back in 1990. He was looking back on Magic’s career. That was when West first admitted to me that he was not convinced the Lakers should draft Magic at No. 1 in the 1979 NBA Draft. Every basketball mind in America was questioning how Magic Johnson would be able to make it in the NBA. That included Magic himself. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t have a lot of confidence about it. Dr. Jack Ramsey, Portland’s coach, didn’t think he could be an NBA point guard. Jerry West had his serious doubts. The people who believed in Magic were not basketball people. There were some, including the late Jerry Krause when he was a scout for the Lakers. He thought Magic would be a great NBA player.”

Why was there initial skepticism on how Magic would fare in the NBA?

Lazenby:

“It was just hard to see where he would play in the NBA. He had that high dribble and a little bit of a weak left hand as Jack Ramsey pointed out. He didn’t have a great jump shot. He shot more of a set shot. People loved his enthusiasm, but you just couldn’t project him. The same thought came from [CBS announcer] Billy Packer, who called the Final Four that year. They picked his Michigan State teammate, Gregory Kelser, to be the best projection in the NBA. He had a hell of an NCAA tournament and a championship game. He wound up being a first-round draft pick with the Pistons (No. 4)."

"The crux of my book shows how Magic was a function of his heart. Jerry West said to me, ‘You can see what people do on the floor, but you can’t read their heart.’ Magic has what many think is the greatest heart in the game. Some people thought Magic was the greatest of all time. That’s funny for a guy that didn’t shoot all that well and was considered to have a weak left hand. But he played so well and controlled everything. Nobody has come close to passing like him on the break. It’s like electricity. Magic was good his rookie season. But he was playing with Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. Everybody schemed for Kareem. Magic was a really nice player and came out of the gate playing well. But it was a huge surprise what he did in Game 6 [in the 1980 NBA Finals] Kareem had played that series just brilliantly. When he went down with the ankle injury in Game 5, there was no one that thought Magic could do what he did in Game 6 [posting 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists at center in Philadelphia]."

"Magic likes to boast about all of his winnings in high school, college and pro. But he really had blown opportunities and times where didn’t play well. The facts sometimes run contrary to his personal narrative. He didn’t have it easy all the time. He blew playoff games and did things you didn’t think Magic would do like when he lost in the state playoffs both during his sophomore and junior year of high school."

"But what I found in writing ‘Michael Jordan: The Life,’ Michael had a meltdown his junior year that cost his team the chance to advance. There are painful lessons that great athletes learn along the way and painful chapters they encounter in their lives. That’s one of the fun things about writing a biography – you look at how they respond at a young age. Sports is really a business where athletes are evaluated in their teen years. These evaluations are very serious and end up defining them. Magic was able to define himself, obviously. But it wasn’t easy.”

Given all your familiarity with these different luminaries, who do you think is the greatest Laker of all time?

Lazenby:

“I do not believe and will not number the great players. I won’t say this guy is No. 3 and this guy is No. 1. They spent their lives laying their hearts on the line every night for over a decade and more. I’m not going to be some writer saying, ‘Oh yeah, Wilt [Chamberlain] is No. 6!’ That’s presumptuous. I think the record for each of them stands for itself. I’m proud to have interviewed, known and watched all of them."

"Without Kareem, they wouldn’t have won in 1980. Magic had the big Game 6. But Kareem had done a lot of the work beforehand. The people we interviewed said, ‘We really had to scheme for Kareem. We didn’t have to worry about Magic.’ Kareem’s skyhook, you couldn’t defend it. When Magic was a rookie, it was obvious he was going to be very good. But he’s not what kept coaches awake at night. Kareem was such a big part of Showtime. Magic was an incredible part of Showtime. Without Magic, Kareem and the rest of that team won nothing. So it’s too complicated to say, ‘This guy is the greatest.’"

"Jerry West was the greatest competitor in so many ways. He really epitomized what it meant to care on a deeper level. You can’t say anything less about the great, great, great Elgin Baylor. He came out of a deeply racist America as a remarkable man that was incredibly bright, competitive and talented. He and Jerry West endured together with taking teams that were deeply flawed to the Finals. They didn’t have much depth and couldn’t handle the Celtics. It drove Jerry crazy. You go onto a competitor like Kobe Bryant, who never cheated the game. He is adored worldwide for everything he was. Kobe had his shortcomings. He was fierce and mean. He wanted to be the Black Mamba. That was his competitive symbol that he used to rebuild his image following the rape charges in Colorado [in 2003]. But Kobe’s relationship to the game delivered modern basketball in so many ways."

Jerry West at Kobe's jersey retirement
Jerry West at Kobe's jersey retirement

"There are any number of really, really good players. You could go on with Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, James Worthy, etc. LeBron James has spent a short time with the Lakers. I don’t think he could qualify as the greatest Laker. LeBron and Wilt are in the same category. They’re absolute titans in so many ways and delivered championships. But their tenure with the Lakers came later in their careers.”

Kobe often said he wasn’t motivated to become the greatest player or greatest Laker, but to become the best version of himself. Do you gather that Jordan, Magic and Jerry looked at this through the same lens?

Lazenby:

“I think that’s exactly true. They started to care about it because the fanbase and the culture cares so much about it. That is a standard other people try to hold them to. But I think they were all about winning. They were all different in how they approached it a lot of times.”

Seeing that the name Michael Jordan still piques a lot of interest today, what qualities do you think he had that made him so mercurial?

Lazenby:

He absolutely elevated the game to a global level. The real eye-opener for me is that ‘Michael Jordan: The Life’ is now published in its 21st language. It’s coming out in Portuguese this month. There are discussions to bring it out in Hebrew. It’s already out in Greek and so many other languages. What has happened to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is they are people that celebrated all over the world. They made the American basketball competitor the symbol of the warrior culture. That’s why they are loved and revered as warriors. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing.”

What exact role do you think Magic had with revitalizing the NBA and getting it to where it is now?

Lazenby:

This book tells what basketball was like when it was fun. Magic is the guy. The NBA couldn’t sell tickets in the early days. They had to have doubleheaders with the Globetrotters because people wanted fun and wanted winners. Bob Cousy was a fun guy and obviously the Celtics won big. But Magic came along and did things no one could ever have imagined. Nobody has ever been able to play the way Magic did. He is the singular player in NBA history with the way he ran a fast break as well as the way he electrified Hollywood, Los Angeles and the globe. The NBA was in a terrible place when he got there. He and Larry Bird together really set the table and lifted things."

"A lot of people don’t want to hear it. But Magic kicked Michael’s [butt] a lot during the early years when Jordan tried to lift his team up. Then Jordan gained supremacy as the other two aged. But it was all a great competition. It’s an important, American story. It’s important not just in terms of sports, but more importantly culturally. What Magic did for America is important culturally. It was led by [former NBA Commissioner] David Stern, who had those values. People can love him or hate him. But he had the values that was important in this country’s growth and he had the players to promote with Magic, Larry and Michael. It’s quite a story.”

After writing the book, what additional perspective did you get on what Magic did after testing positive for HIV with still living and having more success as a spokesperson and businessman?

Lazenby:

“That’s the greatest mystery. That’s why he has the greatest heart. He was fearless. In the early 90s, we had a world petrified by fear with contagion. Magic had obviously made mistakes and admitted it many times. He wasn’t a guy that was drinking and doing drugs. His addiction was the human touch. That led to his downfall. But he also had the iron will to forge ahead and build the life he has as an entrepreneur. After he fell from grace publicly, he had the ironwill to do truly great things.”

Like how you covered MJ and Kobe, do you have any particular interest in any project on LeBron James or any other current NBA star?

Lazenby:

“I have been working on a documentary on LeBron. It’s a lot about Akron, his late high school and entry into the NBA. It’s about a guy who worked closely with his family. They’re going to start shooting next month in November and have already done all the preliminary interviews. It’s been fascinating. It is an interest I have. I’m 71, am reasonably healthy and enjoy working. I do know there are already some very fine books on LeBron, but there were 27 books on Michael Jordan when I wrote ‘Michael Jordan: The Life.’ My books are different. I mix the culture and sports together because it really defines who we are.”

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider at Sportskeeda. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Threads.

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Edited by Amulya Shekhar