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The Accidental Populist 

Magic Johnson gives some back

Wednesday, Feb 17 1999
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Johnson's skirmish last summer with 8th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas over the development of the Santa Barbara Plaza perfectly illustrated the point: Ridley-Thomas' chronic resistance to development and his political maneuvering in the plaza deal -- threatening to kill it because Johnson backed a stadium bid in Carson instead of his own bid to rebuild the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum -- stood in unflattering contrast to Johnson's just-do-it exhortations. The standoff solidified Johnson's image as a community champion who was being wronged by a bureaucracy that had been indifferent and ineffective for so long that it knew no other way to be. Following critical media coverage and public outcry, Ridley-Thomas grudgingly backed down.

The incident baptized Johnson in fire, and he recalls the wrath of Ridley-Thomas, a longtime friend, soberly but with lingering bewilderment. "I've always supported Mark, and he supported me on the theaters," he says. "But the city took us through a long process on this one. Mark took it personal, which is too bad. He called me up at night really upset [after reading about Johnson's position on the Coliseum in an L.A. Business Journal article], threatening to pull the permits on the expansion of the theaters, which was already under way. He was like, 'I'll show you who's in charge around here!'" Johnson shakes his head. "My partners asked me what I wanted to do. I said, 'Man, I'm ready to walk.' We were going to leave the L.A. thing alone. We were getting a lot of deals coming at us, we didn't have to go looking." But then the bad press hit, and Ridley-Thomas was suddenly not so anxious to have Johnson Development Corp. bow out and leave him in public-relations quicksand. JDC still has the project, and though the pace of progress has been snail-like, corporation officials expect the deal to pass the City Council in the next month.

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.

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"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."

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