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The Accidental Populist 

Magic Johnson gives some back

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui
Magic was in the air in a most unlikely place: a community meeting in a drab, school-cafeteria-size room at the Department of Water and Power, across the street from the Crenshaw mall. The meeting was of an advisory body to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, one of a dizzying array of such groups that at one point promised to be the missing link between revitalization money and the long-thwarted will of the people. Inasmuch as South Los Angeles looks as frozen out of big-scale development today as it did in '92, when the world witnessed the violent apogee of that thwarted will, these advisory groups had gotten pretty much nowhere, generating press statements, surveys, meetings, public hearings -- but little magic. The machinery of community input had been oiled to perfection, yet nothing significant happened on the economic front until Earvin "Magic" Johnson opened his multiplex movie house on the grounds of the mall and folks dared to start talking about the dawn of a new era. (It had to be, if only for the remarkable fact that Cecil Murray and Charles Blake, pastors of L.A.'s two biggest black churches, who were rarely seen in public together, both showed up to give pre-ribbon-cutting invocations.) For the last two years the Johnson Development Corp. had worked to cinch a deal that would rebuild the adjacent, ailing Santa Barbara Plaza, but had lately hit a political snag with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas that threatened to undo modest steps that nonetheless had not been taken by a development company in the area in decades, and never before by a company that was black-owned. The congregants at this meeting filled the room to overflow because they wanted to know what exactly was going on with this deal, this thing that had moved past talk and paper and was solid enough for them to be concerned about its future. The room was as electric with this rare triumph -- this arrival of a plausible Deal -- as it was with rising anxiety that this venture, too, would fail; people buzzed, or leaned against the walls, or at the very least leaned forward in their chairs as they waited for an update.

Ridley-Thomas and various city types took the stage and droned officiously on about scenarios and possible roads and all the angles and deliberate speed being applied to enacting the will of the people. Chairs creaked and the buzz softened to occasional whispers. When the floor was opened to questions, Ridley-Thomas got not a question but a rocket. "I've been out there in the streets, you know, and the brothers out there, they're down for Magic," said the young man in the dark bomber jacket, his voice even but loud, edgy. "And the word is, if this development isn't done by Magic, well . . ." He spread his hands. "There's some talk I heard about burning the place down."

MAGIC JOHNSON IS TRYING NOT TO LOOK PLEASED. He sits forward, shakes his head slowly and tries to muster some gravity to counter the blush of a famous Magic grin that snuck up at the very end of this story, which he's just heard for the first time. He rubs his big hands together like a Boy Scout starting a fire with a stick of wood. He says as solemnly as possible that he doesn't condone violence, doesn't hold with threats, and offers that the young man's passion on his behalf was appreciated but his words were, perhaps, ill-advised. He launches into a heartfelt recitation of his belief that in the end we must all work together, that we're all on the same side and, despite our natural differences, we all want the same things -- easy words to embrace coming from a man who, despite his own long-running superstardom with the Lakers basketball club, was at least as famous for his selflessness on court, for expounding on and then demonstrating the virtues of teamwork.

That said, Johnson sits back and lets the smile finish itself. The smile is not vengeful but satisfied; it is a smile of some pure astonishment and a little delight at finding himself at a political impasse at all. Johnson respects obstacles but doesn't give in to them, rather relishes them -- the exception being his HIV-positive status, announced to the world in 1991. In the shadow of that greatest of obstacles, all others are merely problems -- he would say challenges -- that can be surmounted by well-thought-out, well-executed plays. That need to devise new plays is what drives him, what makes Earvin Johnson "Magic" and what has been most responsible for the business empire known as Johnson Enterprises.

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