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Johnson says that through all the setbacks and political minutiae inherent in development, he tries to maintain a sense of higher purpose instilled in him by mentors like Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, and super entrepreneur Bruce Llewellyn. "Bruce taught me a lot about business," he says. "He once asked me when I was first starting out, 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'I want to be a businessman.' He said, 'No, you've got to be better and bigger than that. You've got to be more than that.'" He pauses, then continues, "The row with Mark was good, in a way. If I'm going to be a player in the community, this taught me a valuable lesson. Politics is politics, to a degree. We're building movie theaters everywhere, like in Harlem, and everybody says, 'I'm the man, you got to come to me first.' If this stuff [in L.A.] bothered me, it's only because Mark and I knew each other. We're okay now -- I'll never be against him -- but I stood firm and something had to give. At the end of the day, you need the project, you need the jobs. I understand you got to play the game, no problem, but I don't want to be blindsided.
"But I feel good about what happened. The bottom line is, we're not going to turn our backs."
THOUGH HE IS PUBLICLY APOLITICAL, Magic Johnson espouses tenets of individualism that might be called Republican: The government will not save you, he says. Black leadership will not save you. You're the only one who can make a difference. Go for it. But this is more sportspeak than anything, and while it might be incidentally Republican, Johnson does not readily absolve the sins of wholesale urban neglect, unlike agitprop black conservatives such as UC Regent Ward Connerly and talk-radio host Larry Elder. He hopes that what he's doing will set examples for the public sector, the private sector, guys on the street with little money but plenty of vision, because, he stresses, he just can't do it all.
"Actually, we need 12 more Magic Johnsons," says local architect and developer Michael Anderson, a veteran of Crenshaw development wars.
"Believe me, he doesn't have to do what he's doing," says Eric Holoman, a personal financial accountant with Bank of America and Johnson's longtime friend. "He could be very comfortable -- take his money, invest it quietly, make more money, travel, have fun -- but he doesn't. He's furthering a business cause that needs to be furthered. He has a conviction, and that's what matters."
Michael Stennis, owner and heir to the Golden Bird fried-chicken restaurant chain, says Johnson's commitment to a cause ä that over the years has eaten alive the best of intentions is nothing short of amazing. "Peter Ueberroth of Rebuild L.A. finally quit because he couldn't get big business to come in and stay -- Earvin's the only one doing it," he says. "Nobody had to twist his arm. Even black people told him he was stupid to do it, that it would fail, but that didn't deter him. He wanted to do things big."
There's another, simpler explanation for the genesis of Johnson's business passions. As a 20-year-old star Laker recruit and new arrival to Los Angeles, he struck up a friendship with Joe Smith, then chairman of Elektra-Asylum Records and a Lakers season-ticket holder. Smith, who eventually helped renegotiate Johnson's contract, recalls with a laugh the day he invited Johnson to his lavish Beverly Hills home. "When he saw all this stuff -- the wine cellar, the furniture -- his eyes got four times the normal size," says Smith, who now works as a music consultant. "He was in awe. He was like, 'How can I get these things?'"
Johnson freely admits that his motivation for community improvement is acquisitive -- ensuring that folks have a basic right to things, but more important, to as broad a range of things as possible. That's what's missing from the inner city, and that's what makes him perfectly happy to peddle the Magic Johnson name to corporations that would otherwise be perfectly happy to continue setting up shop at points comfortably west and north of the 10 freeway. "The Santa Barbara Plaza is just the beginning," says Johnson. "I want to own the Ladera Center, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall, Fox Hills Mall -- I need to own them. Then retailers would trust me, and I could bring in people like Nordstrom, I could bring in the quality we need, that we want, more easily."
Some agitate for social or educational reform; Johnson's push for the economic right of a predominantly black neighborhood to have a Nordstrom's Rack may seem trivial by comparison, but what it represents in the context of class-driven progress in the '90s may turn out to be as significant. Johnson is clearly proud of the fact that his theaters on King Boulevard boast rocking seats, high-tech sound, uniformly polite young employees suited up in vests and bow ties. "We deserve the best," he declares, and it is exactly that encompassing sentiment, that identification with all black people tired of being short-shrifted not just by movie theaters and shopping malls but by public education and job opportunities and criminal-justice injustices and all the rest -- that inclusive weand ourthat Johnson employs so purposefully and passionately in conversation -- that is the biggest reason he has emerged, intentionally or not, as a man of the people.