By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Ted Soqui
MAZATLÁN, Mexico — “This is not, like, the first time I’ve done something like this,” Earvin Johnson tells me, as if I couldn’t tell, as if his smiling comfort inside a human Humvee of scowling bodyguards didn’t crystallize what it’s been like to live life with most people calling you Magic. “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for years,” Johnson reiterates as his tightly T-shirted escorts urgently jog him across the grounds of a luxury hotel, through a crush of cameras and reporters and fans. “I do this aahhhllllover the world.”
Precisely what is Johnson doing? After all this time, nearly a quarter-century of celebrity, that still defies pinpointing. But this time he’s come to Mexico to do it.
“I’m happy to be back in Mexico,” Johnson has just finished saying at the press conference. “I’ve always said it’s like my second home.” He didn’t specify whether that’s behind Los Angeles or Lansing, Michigan.
Johnson has swooped into the resort city of Mazatlán on his Magic-carpet legacy — the five world championships with the Lakers, the 12-year-old HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, the ever-expanding socially conscious business empire, the failed TV talk show, the upcoming MTV reality show, the murmurs about running for mayor — to play a one-on-one charity basketball game against . . . a reserve forward on the Dallas Mavericks named Eduardo Nájera?
Yep, and that’s Eduardo Nájera, as in “one of my favorite players in the NBA — Eduardo Nájera, my man,” as Johnson introduces him. Nice endorsement, but promoters didn’t need it to justify reserving the city’s 15,000-seat baseball stadium for the event. Eduardo Nájera may be just a defense-and-rebounding role player for the Dallas Mavericks, but in Mexico his role is national hero — the only Mexican national in the National Basketball Association. Consequently, during Dallas’ recent run deep into the NBA playoffs, most of Mexico was rooting for the Mavs. Reading the coverage in the Mexican papers, well, if you didn’t watch the games on TV, you couldn’t guess Nájera was a reserve. No matter what happened on the floor, no matter what the final score, every account portrayed Nájera as a central character.
Johnson was totally dialed-in to these dynamics when he came to Mazatlán, and wasn’t surprised when approximately 10,000 people showed up at scruffy Estadio Teodoro Mariscal to sit in the 100-degree heat and sapping humidity and watch the event called El Encuentro Mágico. The Magical Encounter.
The game? It wasn’t much. It wasn’t even one-on-one. Magic and Nájera each took a couple of youngsters as teammates and spent most of the time dishing the ball to them, or taking lazy three-pointers. The crowd didn’t seem to mind. Nobody booed.
When it was over, Magic Johnson and Eduardo Nájera stood on the plywood-and-plastic court that had been situated around second base and presented a local children’s charity with a check for $50,000.
“When I do somethin’, I want it to be about somethin’,” Johnson said later. “The last time I came to Mexico, it was about speaking to the kids in Mexico City about the importance of staying in school. This time, it’s about teaching the kids a little about basketball and making some money for charity. It’s about giving back to the game and the people.”
Of course, it was about more than that. It was about the nurturing of Johnson’s stardom and vitality and relevance, too. Johnson is still Magic, but he is also 43 years old, overweight and finally grown into that Walter Brennan walk he’s had since he was a kid. His Hall of Fame career petered out seven years ago, and it’s been more than a decade since he was at his best. He understood the value of being on the same court with a young, strong up-and-comer with a fan base — they call Nájera El Mexicano de Oro — at the edge of Johnson’s sphere.
It worked well for Nájera, too. Even his most loyal compatriots are beginning to wonder aloud whether El Mexicano de Oro will ever join the world’s elite, or at least a starting lineup.
Johnson tried to come to the rescue on that one. “Eduardo has the same problem I had when I first came into the NBA,” he said. “He’s a young guy on a talented team, and he doesn’t want to be greedy and take the shots.” But Johnson left out the part about how he won an NBA title during his first professional season in 1980, when he became the only rookie ever to be voted Most Valuable Player in the finals.