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 aahhhllll over 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.
Just because the premise of El Encuentro Mágico looked pretty calculated, however, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing.
Johnson and his image have played for so long in L.A. that reaction to him can be automatic and run to extremes, from goo-goo-eyed adulation to eye-rolling cynicism. But watching his interaction with the people here, during the long, hot day of basketball clinics and autograph sessions that led up to his game against Nájera, was to witness simple, human sincerity.
After all these years, it’s hard to imagine how many thousands of little children Magic has shown how to dribble and shoot. But what is goose-pimplingly harder to believe is how focused he remains on each individual. You can hear him grunt with dissatisfaction when a kid struggles, and you can see him stick with each one until there is improvement. Then comes the big smile and the high-five — and then the next kid, all over again, except just a little bit different.
“Just being next to Magic Johnson, I was very emotional,” Nájera admitted, a wobble in his voice. “I always admired his unselfish style of play. Now I’m learning something else from him, too — the important responsibility I have as an athlete to set a good example for the children.”
When that sentiment was relayed to Johnson, he basked in the compliment — but launched into his analysis of the concept, too.
“Whether players like it or not, kids do look up to them,” he said. “I happen to like it. But most guys in the NBA don’t go home and give back to the young kids. That’s what makes Eduardo special. He hasn’t forgotten where he was born and raised. He’s already been all over his country.”
Meanwhile, Johnson’s endless international itinerary — the public-service TV spots, the traveling all-star teams, the inner-city development strategy, the speeches, the clinics, the annual Midsummer Night’s Magic gala in L.A., and a funky one-on-one basketball game in Mexico held on the other side of the Gold Coast, in front of the people who work in the hotels and restaurants — may be building him into sports’ greatest goodwill ambassador since Muhammad Ali.
Certainly the scene of adoration as he departed Estadio Teodoro Mariscal — the people spilling out of the stands and kicking up clouds of dust as they jumped and cheered around him, Johnson’s round head and thick shoulders and wide grin towering above it all, slapping hands and ultimately throw-ing his shoes to the crowd — was reminiscent of old footage of Ali.
Johnson sidestepped that comparison, but let me know that bein’ about somethin’, whatever that may be at the moment, worked for him.
“It’s great to do it this way,” he said. “Because you can still do your basketball — people love you from the Lakers — and you can use that to talk about the NBA. And then at the same time you can talk about HIV and AIDS. Or staying in school. Or investing your money in underserved neighborhoods. You know, you can talk about all of it, all in one — and then, you know, through it all, you are more popular now than when you were playing.”