— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 31, 2014
Magic Johnson did a lot of amazing things on the court, but his lasting legacy almost certainly will be the way his career would eventually end, which served simultaneously as a crucial lesson and a much-needed beacon of hope. When Magic revealed that he was HIV-positive and took a prominent role in educating the public about the disease, it was likely for many people the first time it truly sunk in that we were dealing with a worldwide plague that literally anyone was in danger of being exposed to.
Johnson, of course, was one of the most beloved figures in sports at the time, and rightfully so. Along with Larry Bird and later, Michael Jordan, Magic was part of the holy triumvirate of transcendent superstars that helped bring the NBA back to prominence, setting it up to be the global superpower it is now.
If not for the premature shortening of his career — and for Jordan, who was clearly the preeminent player of his era — Johnson may have been in the running to be the greatest player of all time. As it stands, he’ll have to settle for being widely considered the best point guard in basketball history, not to mention one of the most prominent businessmen in sports and beyond.
Dubbed “Magic” as a high school sophomore for his on-court exploits, Johnson grew up in a working-class family in Michigan, where his parents’ work ethic rubbed off on him. After a star-studded high-school career, Johnson — who idolized Bill Russell and his championship rings — stayed close to home at Michigan State, where he immediately took college basketball by storm. A complete player, Magic helped the Spartans win the Big 10 in 1977-78, though they were eliminated in the NCAA Elite Eight by eventual champion Kentucky.
The next season truly grew Magic’s legend, and it gave him a natural rival whom he would be compared to and contrasted with for his entire career. Magic led MSU to the NCAA title game, where they went head-to-head with Indiana State and Bird, another native son and basketball prodigy. Stronger overall, Magic’s Spartans prevailed.
Johnson left college after two years and was drafted No. 1 by the Lakers. Bird had already been taken a year prior by the Celtics — this was still possible at the time — so the two rivals joined the NBA’s two glamour franchises at the same time, helping usher in a new golden era for a league that sorely needed it. Soon after the two stars of the most-watched college basketball game of all time went pro together, no longer would the NBA Finals be tape-delayed, a concept that doesn’t even seem real at this point.
“You always have somebody in life that you want to beat, and you want to compete against,” Magic once mused with a smile. “And Larry Bird is the guy.”
Johnson arrived in the league a ready-made superstar, ready to help Los Angeles and its dominant center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, elevate to an unreached championship level. While Bird would win Rookie of the Year, Magic averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists in his first year — basically identical to his college stats — while leading the Lakers to the NBA Title in 1980.
His signature moment of that season — and possibly of his entire career — came in Game 6 of the Finals. With Jabbar out with an injured ankle, the Lakers started Magic at center. While playing basically every position, he scored 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to help L.A. clinch the title and become the only rookie to win NBA Finals MVP. It was a harbinger of the decade of excellence to come. When asked on national television after the game what gave him the ability to rise to the occasion, Magic smiled and said, “Well, I don’t know… I just love to win.”
With Los Angeles’ promotion of Pat Riley to head coach two years later, the Showtime era of flashy, imaginative offense was ushered in, to smashing results. The Lakers would win four more championships in the 1980’s, while Bird’s Celtics would win three. L.A. was 2-1 in its NBA Finals match ups against Boston, with the most notable highlight — rivaling his start at center as a rookie — his iconic game-winning sky hook over the great Celtics front line in Game 4 in 1987.
The Lakers beat the Pistons in seven games the following year, the first repeat champions since the Celtics nearly 20 years prior. It was their fifth title of the decade and signaled the waning of L.A.’s championship dynasty. The Lakers were still very good — particularly Magic, who won the MVP Award each of the following two seasons — but fell short of winning another championship. The closest they came was the 1991 NBA Finals, which also signaled a changing of the guard, as Jordan’s Bulls vanquished the Lakers in relatively easy five-game fashion.
And then, everything changed. Magic discovered before the 1991-92 season that he had contracted the HIV virus and announced he was retiring, in that generation’s “Where were you when …” moment. The announcement was significant in that he was by far the most famous person to be afflicted. He also admitted he had caught the virus in extra-marital affairs with several women; the general public had been unaware that AIDS affected heterosexual people as well. Magic became an ambassador for safe sex and knowledge about the disease, and his announcement was an important touchpoint in both the fight for a cure and the struggle for public awareness.
Happily, Johnson’s basketball career was not actually over. He was voted into the All-Star Game, in which he scored 25 points and was named MVP. (Several players were quite vocal about being uneasy about playing on the same court with Magic. Obviously, we’ve come a long way in terms of awareness since then.) And fittingly, Johnson was chosen to play on the historic 1992 United States basketball team; no Dream Team would have been the same without him.
After a brief and unsuccessful stint coaching the team in 1994, Johnson amazingly made a comeback with the Lakers in 1996 — and looked pretty darn good. No longer a lithe point guard, a beefier Magic was a masterful point-power forward, proving that talent like his could play at any age.
“For me, it always goes back to something I learned in basketball,” Magic said in the ESPN documentary The Announcement. “There’s winning and there’s losing, and in life you have to know they both will happen. But what’s never been acceptable to me is quitting.”
After his career finally ended for good, Johnson began a second life as one of the most successful businessmen in the country. He owned real estate, movie theaters and Starbucks shops and was part of a group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers. Couple that with his broadcast career, and Magic — much like on the court — is a jack of all trades, and a master of all of them.
Much like with his friend and rival Bird — who inducted Magic into the Hall of Fame — it’s a bitter pill to think of the records he’d have been able to smash had he been allowed to gracefully decline. But Magic had time to become a five-time champion and a three-time MVP, not to mention one of the greatest players of all time. His business acumen has created numerous jobs, and has helped revitalize the Dodgers as one of MLB’s true glamour franchises.
And if you believe that everything happens for a reason, as amazing as Magic Johnson was on the court, his greatest contribution might just have been the way he initially bowed out, helping a generation of people learn more about personal responsibility in the face of a terrifying disease. That is — and should be — a far greater part of his legacy than even the most dramatic game-winning hook shot.