What Fans Might Not Know About Magic Johnson

It's pretty much undeniable that Magic Johnson is one of the very best of the very best professional basketball players of all time. A Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and named to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team, the point guard dominated basketball in the 1980s, winning five championships, three Most Valuable Player Awards, and was elected to twelve All-Star teams. Beyond that, he helped make pro basketball a mainstream sport worthy of primetime TV and the public's attention, a key part of the flashy, Hollywood-embracing "Showtime" era of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Johnson was so skilled — and for so early in his career, and for so long — his fame transcended sports. He was a well-known public figure and celebrity around the world, and his influence on sports, media, business, and public health sentiment — in the wake of his 1991 announcement that he'd contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — are still felt two decades after his retirement, leading to close examination in projects like HBO's "Winning Time" and the Apple TV+ documentary "They Call Me Magic." Here's a similarly deep and splashy dive into the long and fascinating life and career of the man they call Magic.

How Earvin Johnson found Magic

"Magic Johnson" is one of the coolest, smoothest, and most appropriate athlete names ever, befitting the player who made going to the NBA Finals routine and who made no-look, behind-the-back passes look easy. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, that's not the man's real first name. His given name at birth: Earvin Johnson, Jr.

Johnson acquired that magical moniker while he was playing at Everett High School in Michigan in the 1970s. According to his NBA bio, an area sportswriter coined the nickname Magic after seeing the budding star, all of 15 years old, score 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists in one game. The name quickly stuck and was regularly used by pretty everyone from then on, with the exception of Johnson's mother, a deeply religious woman who thought that the term, with its connotations of sorcery and witchcraft, was ungodly. She at least had her son's childhood nickname to fall back on should she have liked. "I was chubby before I grew tall, and when I was young people called me June Bug," Johnson told the Seattle Times. "When they passed me with my basketball, I'd hear them say, 'There goes that crazy June Bug, hoopin' all day.'"

The death of a friend and teammate greatly affected Magic Johnson

According to the Los Angeles Times, Magic Johnson's earliest and arguably most vocal champion was a childhood friend named Reggie Chastine. A fellow playground baller in Lansing, Michigan, Chastine was teammates with Johnson at Everett High School and got the future star thinking about being a future star, that achievements like all-state and All-American selections were possible, if not probable. "He was the first one who really believed in me. I doubted myself, but he was looking to big things," Johnson said. "To have that sense of the big dream and that strongest, I needed that."

Johnson and Chastine didn't get to play their senior year together. During the summer before that season started, 16-year-old Chastine was driving in his car when another motorist ignored a stop sign, ran into his vehicle, and killed him. Decades later, according to Sports Illustrated, the tragedy still literally haunted Johnson. In the period after he learned he had HIV and temporarily retired, Johnson experienced a recurring dream in which he and Chastine were playing basketball, and Chastine would convince Johnson that it wasn't yet his time to join him in the afterlife.

Magic Johnson threatened to leave the Lakers and got the coach fired instead

With the number one pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected college-title winning Michigan State star Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The choice paid off immediately. Among the accolades and achievements in Johnson's first three years in the NBA: a spot on the 1980 All-Rookie team, two All-Star game appearances, and two NBA championships. But in 1981, toward the end of that period, Johnson was deeply unhappy with the team where he'd eventually be a franchise player, coach, and executive. According to Jeff Pearlman's "Showtime," Coach Paul Westhead, head of the Lakers' on-court operations since Johnson joined the NBA in 1979, decided to change the team's approach and built an offense around tried-and-true superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, resulting in less touches and responsibility for Magic.

Johnson was so displeased that he asked owner Jerry Buss to flat-out fire Whitehead. Buss refused, and in a "if he doesn't go, I go" situation, Johnson requested a trade to another team. Taking that as an ultimatum, Buss took one day and then fired Westhead, replacing him with Pat Riley.

How his rivalry with Larry Bird turned into a friendship

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson was the preeminent NBA rivalry of the 1980s, with the professional feud predating and extending beyond just those two players. Bird played for the Boston Celtics and Johnson for the Los Angeles Lakers, teams that were intense opponents since the early days of the NBA, facing off in the league finals seven times before both athletes' pro careers began in 1979 — a few months after the two played one another in the NCAA title game. (Johnson's Michigan State defeated Bird's Indiana State.)

Bird and Johnson would face each other as the leader of their squads often during the 1980s, with the Celtics playing the Lakers in three NBA Finals during the decade. That relationship, both professional and personal, was explored in the 2012 Broadway play "Magic/Bird," which both players promoted during an appearance on "The Late Show with David Letterman." Johnson revealed the moment that their respectful rivalry thawed into a friendship: on the set of a 1986 TV commercial for Converse shoes, filmed in Bird's hometown of French Lick, Indiana. "I got to know Larry the man that day, and he got to know Earvin," Johnson said (via the New York Post). Bird invited Johnson to join him at his childhood home for lunch, cooked by his mother, who greeted Magic on the porch and gave him a big, welcoming hug. They were pretty much close friends after that.

Magic Johnson changed the game in big and small ways

While he brought plenty of intangible benefits to pro basketball, with his extremely entertaining style of play a key part of the "Showtime" era Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, and bringing in countless new fans with his intense rivalry with the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, Magic Johnson's influence was additionally felt in basketball terminology and the NBA rulebook.

Johnson ranks third all-time in the statistical category of "triple-doubles." That refers to a game in which a player amassed double-digit totals in the divergent fields of scoring, rebounding, and assists. Johnson's NBA predecessor Oscar Robertson racked up 181 triple-doubles, to Johnson's 138, but when Robertson played in the 1960s and 1970s, nobody ever called his achievement by that name. Johnson tripled-doubled so regularly that the basketball community took notice, according to the NBA, and a phrase was coined in his honor.

Organized basketball, at the professional, college, and high school levels, according to The Morning Call, follows a "blood rule," also known as the "Magic rule." Per the Orlando Sentinel, the NBA developed and enacted the policy in the early '90s, following Johnson's announcement that he had the viral, blood-borne illness AIDS, which necessitates a stoppage in play and the temporary sidelining of a player should they suffer a cut or bleed out of an open wound.

Magic Johnson helped changed public perceptions about HIV

Prior to the start of the 1991-1992 season, Magic Johnson underwent a comprehensive physical exam, according to Ebony – standard procedure for a professional athlete. He was called away from a preseason game in Utah back to Los Angeles by team doctor Dr. Michael Mellman, who delivered the news face-to-face: Johnson had tested positive for HIV. Soon thereafter, in November 1991, Johnson held a press conference in which he divulged his medical status to the world, and that he would step away from basketball as a result. At that moment, according to CBS News, Johnson became the public face of HIV, one of the most prominent figures (and few professional athletes) to announce that he was living with the virus that caused AIDS, the potentially fatal disease that at that point in time was deeply frightening and not widely understood. "We have to remember at that time, people were really dying of AIDS. I was just scared to death," Johnson said.

Not long after his diagnosis, Johnson sprung into action and embraced the advocacy role thrust upon him, meeting with major AIDS awareness advocate Elizabeth Glaser. "She made me promise before she died that I would become the face of the disease and really go out and help people and educate people about it," Johnson told PBS's "Frontline."

Magic Johnson frequently un-retired

Magic Johnson's NBA career seemingly came to an abrupt and early end in November 1991 after 12 seasons, upon his disclosure that he'd contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But neither the NBA, basketball fans, nor Johnson himself were quite ready for him to say goodbye to the game. In early 1992, and despite having not played in a professional game in nearly a year, Johnson was voted to the starting lineup of the NBA All-Star Game. He led the Western Conference to a 153 to 113 victory over the East, scoring 25 points and nine assists and named the All-Star Most Valuable Player. A few months later, with professional basketball players allowed to compete in the Olympics for the first time, Johnson landed a spot on the USA men's basketball team, the so-called "Dream Team" that cruised to a gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona (via Sporting News).

Finally, halfway through the 1995-1996 season, four years after he retired from the NBA, Johnson made a full and proper return to the league. According to Lakers Nation, he played well in what would be his final 32 games in the association, averaging 14.6 points and 6.9 assists and was on the roster when the Lakers quickly lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

Magic Johnson took his talents to Sweden and Denmark

As professional athletes approach age 40, most are thinking about retirement, if they haven't already wrapped up their careers. Magic Johnson had retired from playing in the NBA for the second and final time in 1996, right around his 37th birthday, but as his the big 4-0 approached in 1999, he decided to play with Magic M7, a team based in Boras, Sweden, that played in the Swedish Basketball League, according to the Associated Press. In 2000, Johnson, playing well for the team and attracting crowds so large that the Magic M7 had to move games to bigger venues, signed a two-year contract (per the Washington Post) — likely easily negotiated because Johnson was also an owner of the team, making him one of the few owner-slash-players in basketball history. 

Johnson ultimately played in only five games for the team renamed in his honor (it was previously called M7 Boras), but emerged victorious in all of them, according to the AP. The arrangement fell apart, and Johnson walked away as both an owner and player (per SoloBasket), but within the year, the athlete had signed up for a stint with the Magic Great Danes, a team based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

His Lakers coaching stint was short-lived

Some of the most accomplished coaches in NBA history are former players, promoted from careers as all-stars on the court to masterminds of guiding others to victory. Not among the pantheon of NBA stars turned legendary coaches like Lenny Wilkens, Phil Jackson, and Doc Rivers: Magic Johnson.

The 1993-1994 season was a rare mediocre one for the dynastic, championship-collecting Los Angeles Lakers. Coach Randy Pfund guided the team to a poor 27 and 37 record (via NBA.com), and with the season not yet over, team management fired him, according to Basketball Network. His replacement: beloved, recently retired Lakers fixture Johnson, whom team general manager Jerry West thought would help improve the team and falling attendance figures. Neither metric improved. Johnson helped the team limp to the end of the season, and they were even worse than they were under Pfund. After winning five of his first six games, Johnson coached the Lakers to 10 straight losses. He never led another NBA team, meaning he has a career coaching record of 5 and 11.

The Magic Hour barely lasted more than that

In June 1998, 20th Century Television, according to the New York Times, debuted "The Magic Hour," a syndicated late-night talk show hosted by Magic Johnson and designed to compete with "The Tonight Show" and "The Late Show with David Letterman." Critics were not kind to "The Magic Hour" or its host, however. "In watering itself down to appeal to mainstream white folks," wrote Ray Richmond in Variety, "the show plays a little bit like celebrity night at the Elks Lodge." Richmond said the show was "cornball" and Jackson was a "wit-challenged" MC who irritatingly fawned all over his celebrity guests. 

The most newsworthy event in the ultimately short history of "The Magic Hour" occurred when provocation radio personality Howard Stern came on as a guest and eviscerated Johnson in a racially-charged tirade," telling him to "loosen up" and to "stop trying to talk like the white man" and "talk ebonics all you want." He also tried to get Johnson to open up about the rumored sexual behaviors that led to his contracting HIV. "At least you had fun getting AIDS," Stern quipped. Johnson uncomfortably laughed at Stern's comments, hiding his true feelings. "I wanted to say something and hit him at the same time, on air," Johnson said in the 2022 documentary "They Call Me Magic" (via the New York Post).

After just two months of broadcasting to very small audiences, 20th Century Television canceled "The Magic Hour."

Magic Johnson is a wildly successful entrepreneur

Magic Johnson parlayed the influence he developed and the fortune he amassed over more than a decade as an NBA superstar into a business portfolio that has made him one of the wealthiest men in the United States. According to Players Bio, Johnson's personal net worth exceeds $500 million, and his company, Magic Johnson Enterprises, has a valuation of $1 billion. Per Business Insider, Johnson's empire started with the purchase of two Pepsi bottling plants, and he directed the profits into shopping centers and Magic Johnson Theatres cineplexes, the latter of which he sold to Loews. He also worked out a 50-50 profit split with Starbucks to franchise 105 coffee shop locations into underrepresented, predominantly Black population centers.

But Johnson then put his money where his passions truly lie: in sports. In 2012, according to NBC Los Angeles, he ponied up part of the $2.15 billion to become part of a group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's also an owner of the Los Angeles Football Club, a Major League Soccer team, and the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.

Magic Johnson acrimoniously quit his Lakers job

According to the Los Angeles Times, Magic Johnson's deep ties to the Los Angeles Lakers extended beyond his playing days. He purchased a stake in the Lakers, then sold it off in 2010, but was listed as an honorary vice president until 2016, when, according to the NBA, he asked the team to remove his name from its ranks because he didn't want the public to think he was an active consultant. Less than a year later, the Lakers hired Johnson as an advisor, and then about two weeks after that, per CBS Sports, Johnson was named president of basketball operations.

In that capacity, Johnson helped lure NBA superstar LeBron James, but failed in his attempts to bring other superstars to Los Angeles. Johnson's front office role lasted for a little bit longer than two years, when in May 2019, he resigned from the job, according to the NBA. He told ESPN's "First Take," that he quit after being told he could fire underperforming coach Luke Walton, but then got word from owner Jeanie Buss that he shouldn't. "I told them, when it's not fun for me, when I think that I don't have the decision-making power that I thought I had, then I've got to step aside," Johnson explained, adding that Lakers GM Rob Pelinka's machinations made it hard for him to do the job that he was hired to do.