One of the most influential players in the history of professional basketball is ready to walk — make that dribble — down memory lane. On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, Magic Johnson, sometimes on the verge of tears, reminisces about his last conversation with his mentor, L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, in a hospital room hours before his 2013 death. He recalls telling the world that he was HIV positive at a press conference in 1991, and stepping away from his towering career as a Laker. And he talks about building his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises, which is estimated to be worth $1 billion. He holds in his palm an empire of businesses that includes part-ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers and an infrastructure firm that’s renovating LaGuardia Airport.
Johnson discusses all of these moments and more in the four-part docuseries “They Call Me Magic,” which premieres on Apple TV Plus on April 22. Oddly, it’s not the only Magic project in the marketplace right now. There’s also “Winning Time,” HBO’s series about the Showtime era of the Lakers, the team’s golden age, which coincided with his tenure. Johnson, who says he has no interest in watching “Winning Time,” is baffled that neither HBO nor the show’s creative executives sought participation from him or his teammates.
“First of all, you can’t do a story about the Lakers without the Lakers,” says Johnson, 62. “The real Lakers. You gotta have the guys. There’s no way to duplicate Showtime. I don’t care who you get.” Now Johnson is revved up. “So let’s go through it like this,” he says, leaning forward and scooting to the edge of his seat on a private hotel patio.
“Showtime started on the court — just unbelievable,” Johnson says. “We changed basketball!” There was a time before his arrival in the NBA when the primetime networks debated whether to air games at all because they were so scarcely watched. But that wasn’t the case with his Lakers: “Fast-breaking entertainment” is how he describes their game. “Every time out, Paula Abdul and them beautiful Laker Girls came out on that floor. First time ever. Dancing girls! And they turnt it out. All the latest music, and all the latest dances. You can’t duplicate that. We entertain you. Show you moves that you’ve only seen in the nightclub. Then you move up to the Forum Club.”
Only the lucky few would get past the velvet rope. Johnson grins, thinking about the VIP lounge tucked inside the Lakers’ arena, filled with “the best, sexiest, hottest people in Los Angeles,” he says. “Because it’s a club in a club, right? All the celebrities, all the beautiful people move up to the Forum Club. Every team that came in town: ‘Please, Magic!’ In the third quarter. ‘We gotta get in the Forum Club.’ I said, ‘We still playing the game!’”
Moments from Johnson’s glory days are interspersed throughout “They Call Me Magic.” Some of the archival material — such as the coin flip that gave the Lakers the first pick in the 1979 NBA draft (over the Chicago Bulls); they chose a 19-year-old college student from Lansing, Mich., named Earvin “Magic” Johnson — he’d never seen before. And he never would have had he not agreed to be interviewed for Michael Jordan’s docuseries “The Last Dance.”
The success of that 2020 sports retrospective from ESPN Films and Netflix — which premiered during the early stay-at-home days of the pandemic and inspired obsessive viewership — had networks and streamers all over town knocking on Johnson’s door. “Everybody called,” he says. “Everybody put in a bid. And then NBC got serious. And Apple said, ‘No way.’ I love their approach, because they waited. They came in and said, ‘This is over.’”
In person, Johnson is imposing. At 6-foot-9, his stature only reinforces the perception that he’s larger than life. At SXSW, where the first episode of “They Call Me Magic” premiered on March 12, he took the stage in an olive-green suit and crisp white sneakers, engaging the crowd with a charisma that few politicians could match. He’s a workaholic who gets his start at 4 a.m., hits the gym for two hours and rolls into the office by 6. During our conversation, he lights up at the mention of the Dodgers having just signed former Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to a six-year, $162 million deal. “We always look to win,” he says. “We care about our fans, and Dodger Stadium is going to be rocking all season long.”
Johnson is a vivid storyteller, and it helps that his spectacular life has allowed him to cross paths with so many famous people. He recalls how as a young athlete he traveled with the Jackson 5 on three of their tours. “Michael Jackson, he was such a perfectionist,” Johnson says. “You know, see him look in a mirror for two hours, working on his moves without his brothers.” Johnson urged Jackson to return the favor by coming to a Lakers game, and he reluctantly agreed even though he didn’t think the fans would let him watch in peace. “He was right,” Johnson says. “He sat down; people went crazy. They were running from upstairs, the sides. We had to stop the game to get him out.”
After Johnson joined the Lakers as a point guard, he led the team to five NBA championships and quickly became the highest-paid player in sports — in 1981, he signed an eye-popping 25-year contract for $25 million. And he leveraged his fame as a basketball superstar to become a mogul. Johnson says he lives in Hollywood — he resides in Beverly Hills with his wife, Cookie — but that he’s never wanted to “become Hollywood.” Nevertheless, he counts movie stars such as Samuel L. Jackson as his friends, has produced a handful of films, hosted a short-lived late-night talk show in 1998 and has established a model, followed by everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to LeBron James, for acquiring power in sports and then translating that to entertainment and business.
“Bear in mind, we did not represent athletes,” says Michael Ovitz, who co-founded CAA and signed Johnson in 1988. “Taking on Earvin was unique to us. To put this in perspective for you, Magic Johnson was probably the single most popular being in Los Angeles.” They devised a strategy for Johnson that went beyond endorsements. “The goal was to get him equity in businesses.” Some of Johnson’s early ventures included buying a controlling interest in PepsiCo.’s Washington, D.C., bottling operation in 1990 and partnering with Howard Schultz to launch Urban Coffee Opportunities in 1998, making Johnson the owner of 125 Starbucks stores in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
“They Call Me Magic” draws from an A-list roster of talking heads who recall Johnson’s professional and personal heights: former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Dr. Anthony Fauci (who led the National Institutes of Health’s efforts against HIV during a time when contracting the virus was considered a death sentence), NBA competitors Jordan and Larry Bird, Snoop Dogg and Spike Lee. Also interviewed are Cookie; his children, Andre, EJ and Elisa; and his parents, Christine and Earvin Sr. And while Johnson didn’t ask for creative control of the series, he did have a hand in selecting director Rick Famuyiwa, whose 2002 rom-com “Brown Sugar” he executive produced.
Famuyiwa, a “religious” Lakers fan, looked to Johnson’s 1992 memoir “My Life” while preparing to shoot “They Call Me Magic.” “It’s definitely a different voice,” he says of the 30-something Johnson preserved in the book. “The voice you hear now is of someone who’s looking back and taking full stock of their life, versus that first autobiography, which was really immediate, a person who wasn’t sure if that was going to be the end of it.”
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush recruited Johnson for a seat on the National Commission on AIDS. “Some people told me, Earvin, it’s not what you think it is,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. Until I saw it. In Boston.” Just months after joining the commission, Johnson traveled to Boston to visit a “beautiful” and “brand-spanking-new” HIV and AIDS hospice. But as he remembers it, the building was almost empty of patients due to the layers of bureaucracy involved.
“They only had two people in a 30-bed hospice. All these people out here on the streets trying to get beds. Trying to get care. They were sending them through so much. I quit. That day, I quit.” He never spoke to Bush again. “That’s when I started doing my own thing, and hooked up with all these grassroots organizations doing great work.”
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It’s not hyperbole to say that Johnson’s HIV diagnosis changed the world. When he got the news from his doctors in October 1991, he considered keeping it a secret. But the activist Elizabeth Glaser — who had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and was a presence in Hollywood because of her marriage to actor Paul Michael Glaser — urged him to come forward. “I think Elizabeth Glaser was right when she asked me to become the face of HIV and AIDS,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know what she was talking about at that time, but I’m glad that she pointed me in the right direction and made me get involved.”
In hindsight, Johnson wishes he hadn’t retired from the NBA in 1991 after announcing his diagnosis and being told by doctors that his new meds would hinder his athleticism. But he maintains that he made the right decision at the time, given the information available to him.
“They didn’t know if my immune system could hold up,” he says. “And I had to take a look at my wife sitting here as they’re telling me. I want to be with her forever. So it wasn’t a hard choice. Because you have to remember: They didn’t know a lot. I had to go on that side of caution, and do what I had to do.”
He tried to launch a comeback with the Lakers in 1992, but public ignorance about HIV soured the experience. Karl Malone, then a power forward for the Utah Jazz and a teammate of Johnson’s on the gold-medal-winning United States Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics, made headlines for his opposition to Johnson’s return, saying to the press, “They can’t tell you that you’re not at risk.” When Johnson cut his arm during a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Chapel Hill, N.C., hearing gasps from the crowd and players alike signaled to him that his time on the court was over. The constant and ill-informed fear wasn’t worth it: “I love the game too much to hurt the game,” he says. “So it kicked in that I had to go out and educate people.” (He’d return to the Lakers as a player in 1996 before retiring for good.)
Johnson set out on a roadshow, and he estimates that he visited 300 high schools, colleges and churches to discuss what it was like to live with HIV and how infection could be prevented. Most important, he says, was to reduce the number of cases in “urban America,” the Black and Latino populations that were disproportionately affected by the epidemic. His primary strategy was to reach them through their pastors. “They kept thinking about the sex part of it, and I kept saying, ‘That doesn’t have to be your message. You have to just say there’s a problem in our community.’ They couldn’t separate it in the beginning — but finally, they did.”
Misinformation about HIV and AIDS didn’t disappear overnight. Cookie Johnson remembers staying in a hotel in the Midwest in the early 2000s when a pair of fans asked Johnson for a photo. “I just happened to be walking down the hall past their room, and I overheard them say, ‘Oh, but I touched him. What should I do?’”
Yet Johnson just kept moving forward. He was intent on building his career as a businessman. And despite his standing as a superstar, beloved by wealthy white men, he often saw racism up close. “I sat in some boardrooms, and some things that I’ve heard come out of people’s mouths about urban America — oh, wow,” he says. “And I can’t say nothing. I got to remain professional.” These powerful men would ask him, “Why should we invest in Black people?” “You sit here and say, ‘Wow, they still live back in the ’50s and ’60s.’”
In 1995, in partnership with Sony Retail Entertainment, he opened a chain of movie theaters that aimed to serve Black audiences, starting with the Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 in Baldwin Hills. “He wasn’t just investing in it,” says Lon Rosen, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Dodgers, who was Johnson’s agent from 1987 to 2012. “He was involved in the building of it and in the operation of it — the food selection. He knew they needed more hot dogs and more flavored drinks. He’s very attuned to his community.”
Johnson sold his theater chain to Loews Cineplex Entertainment in 2004, but he still loves to go to the movies with Cookie. He says that he always buys two separate tubs of popcorn, because after growing up with nine siblings in a working-class family, he no longer has to share. “I’ve seen every ‘Batman,’” he says, adding that he saw the most recent iteration starring Robert Pattinson on the day it opened. “And it didn’t disappoint, either.”
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As much as Johnson loves talking about pop culture, one notable flop was his 1998 talk show “The Magic Hour,” which was canceled after a swift three months. While on paper it seemed like Johnson could fill the void left after “The Arsenio Hall Show” ended in 1994, his earnest monologues and lack-luster interviews with stars such as Whitney Houston brought out the knives from critics. In “They Call Me Magic,” Jimmy Kimmel calls “The Magic Hour” one of the worst television shows of all time — and Johnson doesn’t disagree. “I don’t mind people saying that, because I say it myself,” he says. “I’m just not that guy. I wasn’t built for it.”
“The Magic Hour” may be best remembered for an interview that wouldn’t fly today. As Johnson launched his program, one of his most vocal haters was Howard Stern, who would trash him daily on his massively popular radio show. So the producers of “The Magic Hour” came up with the bright idea to book Stern for an appearance.
What followed was one of the most uncomfortable hours in late-night history. Stern accused Johnson of “trying to talk like the white man” and suggested he “talk Ebonics.” “I’m Blacker than you are,” he said, citing the neighborhood in New York that he grew up in. “I’m the Blackest Black man you’ll ever meet.” Then Stern piled on about Johnson’s bachelor days: “At least you had fun getting AIDS.” Johnson calmly corrected him, saying that he had HIV, not AIDS. (A representative for Stern did not respond to a request for comment.)
“I wanted to say something and hit him at the same time — on air,” says Johnson. “I was mad when they booked him, but there’s nothing you can do. When people look for ratings, this is what happens.” But he says he learned from that ugly incident: “I’ve never put myself — or HIV and AIDS, or my race — in that position again, ever again.”
Another of the docuseries’ revelations is that Johnson struggled when his younger son, EJ, came out as gay to his family at 17. “When you grow up in team sports, you’re thinking, ‘Is he gonna play sports?’” Johnson says. “And then when I saw that he liked dolls and to play dress-up … ‘What are you doing?’”
“He’s not somebody who works great being cornered or surprised,” says EJ, now 29. “It was a lot for him to swallow. A lot of going back and forth.” They argued about how EJ presented himself at home the summer before he went to college at NYU. “Scarves were really big for men’s fashion,” EJ says. “And he just could not stand it. He’d come up with stupid rules: ‘No scarves in the house.’ But it’s really not about scarves; it’s really about him seeing you be you.”
A few months later, Johnson visited his son in New York. “He hugged me so hard — he was, like, squeezing all the air out of me,” EJ says. “That’s when I knew, there’s nothing but love here.”
In 2013, after TMZ published photos of EJ in a black boa holding hands with a male friend, he decided to come out publicly. “They Call Me Magic” features those snapshots, followed by clips of the Johnsons making TV appearances as one happy family. Johnson talks about how fans from the LGBTQ community have written him letters or approached him to express their gratitude. “You get the other side too,” he says. “A lot of people don’t love that I love my son.”
As he thinks about it, Johnson’s voice gets soft. “He changed me,” he says of EJ. “He was so proud. This dude here is just so proud of who he is.”
Now Johnson is beaming about his son, like he’s reliving one of his favorite plays on the court. “Cookie said, ‘Look in the mirror,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘You’re right.’ Because I’m proud of who I am. And he got it from me.”
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this story.