By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
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.
Some might have figured it was the HIV discovery that threw things into high gear -- live a crazy fantasy while you can -- but the less dramatic fact is, Johnson has been working toward something of this scope his whole life. As a boy growing up in Lansing, Michigan, he had his own lawn-mowing franchise, and his local heroes were two thriving entrepreneurs named Joel Ferguson and Gregory Eaton; young Earvin cleaned their offices and dreamed of the day he too would own nice buildings and delegate labor to his own staff of employees. In addition to ä several endorsement deals he had as an athlete, Johnson, with the help of his agent and various business mentors, cut some groundbreaking deals that established him not merely as a pitchman but as a man in charge: co-ownership of a Pepsi distributing plant in Maryland, and establishment of Magic Johnson T's, a T-shirt marketing company that secured licensing deals with the NBA, the NFL and other professional-sports organizations and was one of the fastest-growing sports-apparel companies in 1990, the year after it was launched. Johnson also had other things going -- concert promotions, charitable outfits -- years before he took on his riskiest venture, development. This was different, something that harked back to his boyhood imaginings of building a business, from the ground up, that was entirely his own. When the Magic Johnson Theatres multiplex was under construction, he would sit in his car in the dirt-filled parking lot late at night, marveling at what he had wrought.
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