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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.”