A Champion on Every Level
Feb. 26, 2007
Rain was pouring in sheets on the sold-out crowd at Spartan Stadium before Michigan State's high-profile football clash with Notre Dame this past September, but throngs of fans and current student-athletes gravitated toward one man on the field - a man who didn't even play football.
From the moment he stepped onto the basketball court - in any arena in life he pursued - Earvin Johnson Jr. had a remarkable charisma that surpassed the limits of race, culture, age and sport.
It was Magic.
"He's a magnet. He wants to touch everyone around him because he just exudes energy and good will," said Michigan State men's basketball coach Tom Izzo. "He's not just from Michigan State; he's a part of Michigan State. What's neat for us to this day - and it has been 30 years almost - is that he has still kept in incredible touch with our program, our team, our university and the Big Ten."
The man who revolutionized the game of basketball before moving on to fiercer battles against AIDS and poverty, Johnson has been a champion at every level of competition.
The future Michigan State and Los Angeles Lakers star grew up with nine brothers and sisters in Lansing, Mich., where his father worked in a General Motors plant and his mother was a school custodian. For Johnson, playing basketball was natural. Throughout his childhood, he dribbled around the streets of Lansing and was often on the courts by 7:30 a.m.
When he was 15, a local sportswriter noted Johnson's uncanny ability to see plays before they developed and dubbed him "Magic." The nickname stuck, and Johnson was destined for greatness.
As a high school senior, Johnson led Everett High School to a 27-1 record and the state title while averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds. The McDonald's All-American, who was an unprecedented 6-9 for a point guard, had impeccable court vision and could have gone just about anywhere for his collegiate career. But the Lansing born-and-bred Johnson knew all along he was meant to be a Spartan.
When he joined Jud Heathcote's team at Michigan State for the 1977-78 season, Johnson became an immediate superstar. After finishing a mediocre 12-15 overall and fifth in the Big Ten the season before, the no one was prepared for the turnaround the Spartans would make - except, of course, for those in the Green and White.
"When he came in it became very obvious, along with Jay Vincent, it was obvious that now we were championship-caliber," said teammate Greg "Special K" Kelser. "That made it just unbelievably exciting for us because when you're not a threat, you know you're season's going to end and you know you're going to be sitting back watching other teams go for it all. That's what we had done for two years, but with Earvin's arrival, we knew we were going to be the one other teams sat and watched go for it all."
Along with fellow rookie Jay Vincent, Johnson led the Spartans on a 13-game winning streak through the middle of conference action. Behind Johnson's stellar first-year statistics - 17 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game - the Spartans claimed their first Big Ten title in 11 years and Johnson was named the conference's Freshman of the Year. The team also ended the school's 19-year NCAA Tournament drought, and advanced to within three points of the Final Four before falling to Kentucky, 52-49, in the Mideast regional title game.
In his sophomore year, Johnson returned an All-American, ready to fulfill the Spartans' destiny. He and Kelser, who was then a senior and the team's star post man, developed a strong mutual relationship that emerged in an almost telepathic on-court connection as the pair re-vamped the alley-oop slam.
"He and I were able to bond very well because we both wanted the same thing," said Kelser. "It was important that the two of us had a strong relationship, certainly on the court and then off the court came as a result of that. But he and I had to gel on the court in order for us to be successful as a team and be as good as we could possibly be."
The Spartans kicked off the 1978-79 season on a roll before stumbling to a 4-4 record in conference action by the end of January. The team responded with a vengeance in an overtime victory over league-leading Ohio State that sparked a 10-game winning streak and secured a share of the Big Ten crown.
But Johnson and the Spartans were far from finished. They destroyed their opponents in the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, winning by an average of 23 points per contest, to advance to the championship game. Their opponent - undefeated, top-ranked Indiana State, boasted a Player of the Year honoree named Larry Bird, who eventually became one of Johnson's greatest friends.
The Spartans played fearlessly and their dogged pursuit ended in a 75-64 national title victory that still remains the most-watched college basketball game in history.
But Johnson's game didn't merely reinvigorate Michigan State. It revolutionized the game of basketball.
Following that season, the Big Ten Player of the Year decided to take his game to the next level, and Johnson was chosen as the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Los Angeles was a whole new world for Johnson, but he never once dropped the non-stop exuberance he brought to the Jenison Field House for two years. In his first season, Johnson netted 18 points, nearly eight rebounds and more than seven assists per game. The line secured his spot as the first rookie to be named to the NBA All-Star team in 11 years.
Even though Bird again edged Johnson for the league's annual award - this time as NBA Rookie of the Year - it was Johnson who trumped Bird in the long run.
His team held a 3-2 advantage over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals, when a 20-year-old Johnson took his game to legendary heights. The Lakers' legendary Hall-of-fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was sidelined with a badly sprained ankle and Johnson was forced to switch positions. He led the Lakers to victory with 42 points, 15 boards, seven assists and three steals, clinching the first of five NBA Championships he would win with the Lakers, and became the first rookie ever to win the Finals MVP Award.
The tallest point guard in NBA history, Johnson was also the only player in NBA history who could dominate - not just play - all five positions. In fact, Johnson's all-around play inspired the term "triple-double" in the basketball vocabulary, referring to when he scored at least 10 points, captured at least 10 rebounds and made at least 10 assists in one game.
He executed plays in transition to perfection, slinging alley-oops and dishing no-look passes off the fastbreak that kept opponents' heads spinning. With dazzling passing skills and impeccable court vision, Johnson made passing a form of art. He was unselfish but could score when he needed to - a remarkable ability to do whatever he needed to in order to win.
Izzo, who was a graduate assistant at Michigan State early in Johnson's professional career, remembers coming to open up the gym in August so the former Spartan could work out by himself. And the way the Lakers star pushed himself has been a lasting inspiration to Izzo and now his own players.
"I think he's one of those rare guys that he still thinks his job is to make everybody else better," said Izzo. "I don't think there's any question that he revolutionized the game. Everybody will say it's because he was a 6-9 point guard, but I think he revolutionized the game because he brought two things to the game: he brought the past and he brought winning.
"He wasn't just the greatest player; he might have been the greatest winner. Everybody kind of looks at what's the game going to do for them, and he looked at it as `What can I do for the game?' He put winning as a precedent over everything else."
Johnson had finished the 1991 season as the runner-up in MVP voting to Michael Jordan, and his career appeared far from over. But one November afternoon that year, Johnson shocked the world by announcing he was retiring after testing positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) during a routine team physical.
"Every person remembers where they were when they found out," New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas told FOX Sports in November, the 15th anniversary of Johnson's announcement. "He told me and we talked and cried."
The immediate reactions were full of misconceptions. No one in America really understood HIV and AIDS at the time, and many considered the discovery a death sentence for Johnson.
But instead of fading from the limelight, Johnson did more than simply fight the disease for himself. He used his notoriety - as well as his visible physical and mental strength in fighting against the disease - to raise money for research and increase awareness of the deadly virus that sidelined his basketball career.
With Johnson's support, the cause has seen a dramatic increase in resources. A positive test result is no longer seen as a death sentence. In 1992, the summer after his NBA retirement, Johnson's example proved that he was hardly dying with HIV. He was living with it - and playing basketball with some of the best talent in the world, for that matter.
He returned to the court with the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona, sharing co-captain honors with Bird. The group, known as the "Dream Team," went undefeated, easily cruising though the international field of competition to win the Olympic gold medal.
After a few returns to the court - as a broadcaster in 1992, a coach in 1994 and a player in 1995 - Johnson was ready for success in a different arena. Johnson got his wish to be businessman in June 1994, when he purchased a share of the Lakers and became a part-owner. The following year, he embarked on another business venture.
The founder and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises turned to an untapped marked most companies would not dare: inner-city neighborhoods. He rejuvenated these neglected communities opening a chain of movie theaters and a series of 24-hour Fitness Magic Johnson clubs in minority neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area.
Kelser said Johnson is the prototype for the player-turned-entrepreneur, using his court sense to become a business visionary.
"He's a trendsetter," said Kelser. "When you talk about the concept of using the game - not letting the game use you - he really demonstrated what that meant by example. He's been able to parlay his success as a basketball star into an incredible dynasty, and within that, he has been able to create a lot of opportunities for other people.
"It's really remarkable the things that he has been able to achieve as a result of him being a great basketball player and also just being the person he is. Somehow you get the sense because of his sheer will to succeed, that he would have found a way to find success even with out basketball."
Meanwhile, Johnson the philanthropist is still creating a difference. The Magic Johnson Foundation has grown to champion more causes with charities such as National Breast Cancer Awareness Initiative, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Make-A-Wish Foundation, American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Foundation, the United Negro College Fund and the Urban League. He has also served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, speaking to youth about drugs, violence and other social issues.
But perhaps one of the most constant and lasting roles Johnson has played through out his career has been as Michigan State's biggest legend and greatest supporter.
In 1999, past and present Spartans gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1979 national championship while the current team star, Mateen Cleaves, was reeling from the pressure of great expectations coupled with a disappointing loss to open the Big Ten season.
When Cleaves ran up to meet his program's greatest legend, Johnson offered some much-needed encouragement: "I've been watching some of your games, and it looks like you're not having any fun. I've been there, but you have to remember why you're playing. You're playing basketball because it's fun. Now go out and have fun."
Cleaves, a preseason All-America selection, led the Spartans to 22 consecutive wins before bowing out in the Final Four. While many expected Cleaves to jump to the pros, the star point guard returned with unfinished business to attend to - an NCAA title.
At the 2000 NCAA Tournament Championship game against Florida, the Spartan faithful held signs that read "Let's party likes it's 1979," and Johnson, of course, was on-hand for the title celebration.
"It meant a lot to me, and I think it means a lot to the players," said Izzo. "When you're a coach you try to tell your players that you're playing for the guys that have paved the way before you. Maybe in a program nobody paved the way like Magic Johnson did here. Michael Jordan and some of those guys [of that generation] are unbelievable players, but none of them paved the way like Magic did. He built the tradition here."
Even Izzo, who is revered as one of the game's greatest mentors, said he is one of the biggest benefactors of Johnson's living legend.
"To this day, I'm not sure I'd have the job if it wasn't for Earvin's blessing. He has been as supportive as a superstar who lives 2,500 miles away could be, and as much as any coach or any program could ask for," said Izzo. "There are a lot of people who have had significant influence on my life, but there's nothing I enjoy more than a half-hour talk with him in my office. I just feel like I can conquer the world when I'm done."
Anything is possible with a little Magic.