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The Accidental Populist

Photo by Ted Soqui
Magic was in the air in a most unlikely place: a community meeting in a drab, school-cafeteria-size room at the Department of Water and Power, across the street from the Crenshaw mall. The meeting was of an advisory body to the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, one of a dizzying array of such groups that at one point promised to be the missing link between revitalization money and the long-thwarted will of the people. Inasmuch as South Los Angeles looks as frozen out of big-scale development today as it did in '92, when the world witnessed the violent apogee of that thwarted will, these advisory groups had gotten pretty much nowhere, generating press statements, surveys, meetings, public hearings -- but little magic. The machinery of community input had been oiled to perfection, yet nothing significant happened on the economic front until Earvin "Magic" Johnson opened his multiplex movie house on the grounds of the mall and folks dared to start talking about the dawn of a new era. (It had to be, if only for the remarkable fact that Cecil Murray and Charles Blake, pastors of L.A.'s two biggest black churches, who were rarely seen in public together, both showed up to give pre-ribbon-cutting invocations.) For the last two years the Johnson Development Corp. had worked to cinch a deal that would rebuild the adjacent, ailing Santa Barbara Plaza, but had lately hit a political snag with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas that threatened to undo modest steps that nonetheless had not been taken by a development company in the area in decades, and never before by a company that was black-owned. The congregants at this meeting filled the room to overflow because they wanted to know what exactly was going on with this deal, this thing that had moved past talk and paper and was solid enough for them to be concerned about its future. The room was as electric with this rare triumph -- this arrival of a plausible Deal -- as it was with rising anxiety that this venture, too, would fail; people buzzed, or leaned against the walls, or at the very least leaned forward in their chairs as they waited for an update.

Ridley-Thomas and various city types took the stage and droned officiously on about scenarios and possible roads and all the angles and deliberate speed being applied to enacting the will of the people. Chairs creaked and the buzz softened to occasional whispers. When the floor was opened to questions, Ridley-Thomas got not a question but a rocket. "I've been out there in the streets, you know, and the brothers out there, they're down for Magic," said the young man in the dark bomber jacket, his voice even but loud, edgy. "And the word is, if this development isn't done by Magic, well . . ." He spread his hands. "There's some talk I heard about burning the place down."

MAGIC JOHNSON IS TRYING NOT TO LOOK PLEASED. He sits forward, shakes his head slowly and tries to muster some gravity to counter the blush of a famous Magic grin that snuck up at the very end of this story, which he's just heard for the first time. He rubs his big hands together like a Boy Scout starting a fire with a stick of wood. He says as solemnly as possible that he doesn't condone violence, doesn't hold with threats, and offers that the young man's passion on his behalf was appreciated but his words were, perhaps, ill-advised. He launches into a heartfelt recitation of his belief that in the end we must all work together, that we're all on the same side and, despite our natural differences, we all want the same things -- easy words to embrace coming from a man who, despite his own long-running superstardom with the Lakers basketball club, was at least as famous for his selflessness on court, for expounding on and then demonstrating the virtues of teamwork.

That said, Johnson sits back and lets the smile finish itself. The smile is not vengeful but satisfied; it is a smile of some pure astonishment and a little delight at finding himself at a political impasse at all. Johnson respects obstacles but doesn't give in to them, rather relishes them -- the exception being his HIV-positive status, announced to the world in 1991. In the shadow of that greatest of obstacles, all others are merely problems -- he would say challenges -- that can be surmounted by well-thought-out, well-executed plays. That need to devise new plays is what drives him, what makes Earvin Johnson "Magic" and what has been most responsible for the business empire known as Johnson Enterprises.

 

Some might have figured it was the HIV discovery that threw things into high gear -- live a crazy fantasy while you can -- but the less dramatic fact is, Johnson has been working toward something of this scope his whole life. As a boy growing up in Lansing, Michigan, he had his own lawn-mowing franchise, and his local heroes were two thriving entrepreneurs named Joel Ferguson and Gregory Eaton; young Earvin cleaned their offices and dreamed of the day he too would own nice buildings and delegate labor to his own staff of employees. In addition to ä several endorsement deals he had as an athlete, Johnson, with the help of his agent and various business mentors, cut some groundbreaking deals that established him not merely as a pitchman but as a man in charge: co-ownership of a Pepsi distributing plant in Maryland, and establishment of Magic Johnson T's, a T-shirt marketing company that secured licensing deals with the NBA, the NFL and other professional-sports organizations and was one of the fastest-growing sports-apparel companies in 1990, the year after it was launched. Johnson also had other things going -- concert promotions, charitable outfits -- years before he took on his riskiest venture, development. This was different, something that harked back to his boyhood imaginings of building a business, from the ground up, that was entirely his own. When the Magic Johnson Theatres multiplex was under construction, he would sit in his car in the dirt-filled parking lot late at night, marveling at what he had wrought.

Since focusing on black economic development, Johnson has reset an agenda that hadn't been set in decades. His growing enterprises here and across the country are forcing discussions about slow growth vs. no growth that had never before been necessary. After putting away the pro-basketball jones for good in 1996, he turned his attentions fully to business ventures, and before anyone really knew what was happening he swooped downcourt and scored a number of deals that alone promise to change the long-neglected face of South L.A.: a $150 million commitment from CalPERS, the state's largest pension fund, for the purchase of Ladera Center and redevelopment of the Santa Barbara Plaza; first-of-a-kind partnerships with Starbucks and TGI Fridays; and, with fellow celebs Jheryl Busby and Janet Jackson, the purchase of Founders National Bank, the sole black-owned bank in the West.

Johnson sees his inner-city developments, the ones charting territory so new there's no real name for it yet, as something much bigger than himself. Not as big as God, but spiritual insofar as business undertakings in minority areas can be, sometimes must be -- leaps of faith and all that. "You know, if I'd listened to everybody's advice, there'd still be no movie theaters in the hood," he says almost impatiently. "But if we [black people] don't do it, who's gonna do it? We'll be complaining about the same thing forever. It is my responsibility, not only to teach young people what's possible, but to make older people proud, too. So many people have come up to me and said, 'We're so proud to have this place.'" He suddenly grins full strength, savoring his victory and the fact that he is able to share it with other folk. "I love going to my theater on Friday or Saturday. Don't have a problem in the theater with people recognizing me, but when I go to the concession stand -- whooo, boy!"

MAGIC JOHNSON IS GIVING INNER-city redevelopment the one thing it never figured to have: celebrity. It's something he is more than willing to employ for the greater good, though Magic is a bit of a stranger to the man who's always called himself Earvin. By his admission, the two personas have converged at points in the past, though now they're separated for the purposes of work. One is a brand name, the other is the product itself; both are crucial to the success of Johnson Enterprises. "When I walk in the door to do business with people, I'm Magic," Johnson explains. "But when I finish business, they're calling me Earvin."

In the hood, the name Earvin registers blank looks, but "Magic" invokes everything good and heroic and possible: championship basketball, sportsmanship, modesty, belief in God, bold new enterprise, recycling dollars. Though Johnson frequently cites his ties to the Crenshaw district -- he and his wife, Cookie, belong to West Angeles Church; he is a regular client of a neighborhood barber -- his presence, in the manner of most celebrities, is more broadcast than actual. Yet his business concerns make him real enough to locals, who say that Johnson's abiding interest in bringing retail amenities -- lattes, business suits -- to the area more than qualifies him as a flesh-and-blood brother. He is closer to the people than traditional black organization heads and politicos, who have proved better at delivering uplifting speeches and doling out awards from behind podiums than at facilitating change.

 

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.

"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 we and our that 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.

"Magic, he's a down brother," says Mark Broyard, a musician and a morning regular at the Boulevard Café in the Santa Barbara Plaza. "I look around, and I don't see the James Worthy Center or the Michael Jackson Center, or anybody else openly giving their money and putting their names on things. Crenshaw is the hub of black activity, but Mark Ridley-Thomas is doing nothing. Magic's the catalyst for everything that's happening here. When he's finished with this plaza, I hope he starts on the east side of Crenshaw."

Smith chuckles at the notion of Johnson, the accidental populist. He lauds the Johnson Enterprises endeavors as more than worthy, but says Johnson has an overarching need to stay in the spotlight -- that it was only after Johnson made peace with the fact that the basketball court was permanently behind him that he turned to business full time. What better way to attract attention than to tap a market that had never been tapped before, to burst onto a scene that was hitherto devoid of heroes? "He needs to be idolized, worshipped, applauded, he really does," says Smith. "Though he'd drop all this business stuff in a minute if he could play for the Lakers now and make $25 million."

At the same time, Smith adds, Johnson was never just about money, or even fame. "He thrives on pressure, on getting out there with the people, getting into the crowd," says Smith. "With most rich guys, it's enough to be rich. Not Magic. He felt cheated because his career was cut short. He had all this energy and nothing to do with it. He was so wired after he quit basketball, he'd show up to anything, supermarket openings. He's like Bob Hope, who would still be performing if he could still stand up."

 

ALTHOUGH THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE have good things to say about Johnson, a relative few have mixed feelings about the hurricane path of his ambitions. These folks say that his company, while extolling the virtue and deserving nature of the minority community, is to some degree guilty of exploiting it. In its eagerness to establish an inner-city monopoly, they say, Johnson Development has put the squeeze on the same hopeful black entrepreneurs it claims it wants to encourage.

Several years ago, Marvin Jackson, president of the homeowners group Crenshaw Neighbors, was shopping an ambitious plan for a $15 million theater and retail development at Manchester and Broadway, a blighted corner that had been further damaged in the riots. Jackson and his team were looking for a joint-venture partner; city officials sent them to Kenneth Lombard, head of Johnson Development Corp. and president of Magic Johnson Theaters, who proved less than encouraging. "He admired our proposal but basically said that this was their market, that it would infringe on Magic's turf," says Janis Paxton-Buckner, a co-author of the proposal who was present at the meeting. "They were telling us this even though they had no plans themselves to build there. City officials, especially Mark Ridley-Thomas, killed the project, but it was Johnson Development that put the nail in the coffin."

Lombard says he rejected Jackson's plan because it didn't fit the development criteria that JDC had recently formulated with CalPERS. "From a theater perspective, we're looking everywhere for sites, and if there's a way for something to come together, we look at it," says Lombard. "This just wasn't workable for us."

Lombard is no stranger to economic sudden death. In the early '90s, he was an executive with Economic Resources Corp., a local nonprofit that operated the Baldwin Theater, the only black-owned first-run movie house in the country. In 1992, at his initiative, ERC formed a historic joint venture with American Multi Cinema (AMC) to create a new theater chain, called Inner City Cinema, that promised to catalyze the growth of new movie theaters in the post-riot central city. Lombard was named president of the chain. But the Inner City venture dissolved quickly and acrimoniously a year later when AMC sued ERC -- its own partners -- for misrepresentation and financial misdealings. Lombard was never implicated in the financial misconduct -- in fact, the lawsuit says it was Lombard who attempted to bring the whole matter to the ERC board's attention, for which he was subsequently fired by his colleagues. Lombard was down, but not for long: Several months after he left the ERC and Inner City Cinema, Magic Johnson announced his intent to build a theater complex on the grounds of the Crenshaw mall -- with Lombard as his chief operative. Lombard declines to comment on the details of the lawsuit, which was dismissed in 1994, though it is safe to assume he is more content with the fruits of the second venture than he was with the first.

Questions about the Baldwin Theater's ultimate demise still linger. A prominent Crenshaw businessman tells the story of a grassroots group that was looking to reopen the theater. The group was told by Johnson Development that if it planned to open the Baldwin as a first-run house, it would do so at its own risk. "There are lots of folks who had an interest in developing, then Magic comes in with a brand name, and bingo, he's a savior," says the businessman, who asked not to be named. But he also acknowledges that a certain amount of cutthroat maneuvering is par for the development course, and that it may be worth the end result. Indeed, in all of the criticism leveled at Johnson, no one -- except for some Santa Barbara Plaza tenants who are understandably wary about redevelopment -- suggests that Johnson quit what he's doing. "At the end of the day, the Magic theaters are a good thing," says the Crenshaw businessman. "It's nice, it's clean, I go there. This is more of a business thing than a black crabs-in-a-barrel thing. Johnson Development made an investment here, they'll get a return on that investment, and they'll stay. That's what matters."

Still, there is an inherent tension in committing to both social ideology -- uplifting black neighborhoods -- and the most efficient business practices possible; Johnson Development has found itself caught up more than once in a crossfire. Owners of Eso Won Books, one of the few thriving small businesses in the Crenshaw area, publicly charged the company with hypocrisy after it decided not to grant the bookstore a lease in its newly purchased Ladera Center. Last spring, the theaters were targeted in a protest by a group called Project Islamic HOPE for showing How To Be a Player, which the group felt exacerbated black sexual stereotypes. (Theater officials went ahead and showed the film, but have since exercised some quality control, announcing last November that Magic Johnson Theatres would not be showing Belly, a black gangster saga, because of its "overwhelmingly negative and violent depictions of African-Americans" and its "potential to create disruptive situations for our theaters' patrons and employees.") And some feathers have been permanently ruffled over the strict policy of not allowing caps or gang colors in the theaters, a measure designed to deter would-be troublemakers. "I wear baggy pants, a cap, but I'm a teacher and a 52-year-old grandmother -- how the fuck am I going to be a gang member?" snaps Yvonne Hutchinson, a longtime Leimert Park resident who was rebuffed by security on her first visit to the theaters because she wouldn't take off her cap. "That's not respectful. You're in the black community opening a business, saying you're for the community, but you have this assumption right off of something very negative. It's a misguided philosophy that plays into the same old stereotypes that all black people are potentially dangerous. Why is it I can go into any theater in Westwood and nobody asks me to take off my cap?" (The theaters have relaxed the rule over the years and now routinely make exceptions for women.)

 

Others say that Johnson, for all his pro-community speeches, is in fact not investing much of his own money and is merely fronting for the real profiteers -- big corporations like Starbucks and Sony. But supporters dismiss such perceptions as so much urban paranoia, the result of years of negligence and fractured promises. "This whole idea that Earvin is not serious, that he's dabbling, really gets under my skin," says his friend Eric Holoman. "In the business world, nobody sinks in all their money on a project. You get partners. Even if he wasn't investing any of his money, he doesn't have to spend his time trying to get other people to invest theirs. Of course there are things at stake -- if this thing doesn't work, Earvin loses, too. But if it works, everybody wins."

THE NOTION OF BLACK CAPITALISM -- wealthy blacks investing in black communities and independently creating a sort of trickle-down economy in the hood -- was controversial long before Johnson gave it fresh currency. Though a simple idea advanced by black and white leaders alike, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Richard Nixon, it is criticized as a remedy for urban ills because it implies that society at large is ultimately not responsible for the troubled state of its black citizenry. Neither do all moneyed black folk believe that even massive investment by their ranks in shopping centers and the like will come close to rectifying generations of institutionalized racism and miseducation, as Johnson's confrere Charles Barkley has argued. (Of course, such thinking neatly enables blacks like Barkley to go about buying BMWs with nary a twinge of conscience -- conspicuous consumption is, after all, the American way, and black folks in many ways are the most patriotic Americans of all.) Yet Johnson appears to be having some measure of influence: At his urging, Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal recently decided to become a partner in the Carson football-stadium project along with Johnson, Michael Ovitz and a host of other well-heeled celebrities. "When I first met Magic Johnson, before he had even said hi to me, he told me all this fame and getting your picture taken stuff is fine, but you need to start owning things," O'Neal told the Los Angeles Times. "As a 17- and 18-year-old kid, I didn't know what he was talking about at the time, but now I do realize what he was saying."

Johnson's pastor says that his critics, whether they mean to or not, are also holding Johnson disproportionately responsible for "giving back," which has become a buzz phrase among the black middle class but has never been practically understood. "This is not a cross I lay only on the shoulders of the very rich," says Bishop Charles Blake, who worked behind the scenes to help resolve the Santa Barbara Plaza conflict in Johnson's favor. "If I don't do the things with my own money that I should be doing, I shouldn't expect others to carry the rest of the load for me."

Even if Johnson realizes all of his development dreams -- even if he does complete the plaza in record time and start on the east side of Crenshaw -- it remains to be seen if residents will keep up their end of a tacit bargain and shop in the neighborhood. Middle-class consumers in Central L.A. have grown so accustomed to going elsewhere for quality goods that they might not be persuaded to come back to where they never went in the first place, even if it is in their own back yard. Mall magnate Alexander Haagen, who redeveloped the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza as a grand urban experiment in 1988, couldn't do it (though locals always complained that his company dropped the ball on leasing tony stores); whether Johnson can is literally the million-dollar question. Macy's recent, very unceremonious departure from the mall doesn't bode well.

 

Johnson, for his part, is undeterred by the criticism, even downright serene; he's acknowledged the challenge, has done his research and stands by his actions. "We talk a lot of trash but don't do our homework," he says more than once. "Why are there so many fast-food franchises in black communities? Because people sat down and figured out that's what black people buy. They did their homework."

But he knows the grounds of fear, of doubt. He knows that despite the tract-home normalcy represented by his movie house, despite its fiscal success and plenitude of smiling employees, it is not the suburbs, and for all the mighty potential of the urban market, this market, like literary black fiction and intelligent black movies, might be given only one shot. It is therefore critically important that the Magic Johnson Theatres remain, as they have thus far, incident-free, and that requires a delicate balancing act between community accessibility and community censure. So while theater officials denounce the possibly incendiary Belly and require men to have caps in hand only, they do vigorous outreach -- special rates and events for seniors and kids, hosting the annual Pan African Film Festival -- and patrons disgruntled over a late-starting movie or slow concession service are issued apologies and free passes. As anybody who's experienced years of meager to no goods and services in black neighborhoods will tell you, this customer-first attitude makes one hell of a difference.

Johnson is certain that he will prevail, that his terms will be accepted and then embraced. He insists there is no one ä who cares like him, who wants to be there like him. He tells the story of an older man who wrote to him to complain bitterly, like Yvonne Hutchinson, about the no-caps policy at the theater. Then the man came to the theater with his adolescent son, who willingly complied with the rule. "The man wrote me back and said, 'Now I understand, because my son showed me,'" says Johnson. "We're the outlet for people, the place where they don't worry, and have fun. We're their two-hour escape from reality."

MAGIC JOHNSON'S GREATEST strength is the fact that he is consistently present. He pays attention; he doesn't ignore or condescend or talk ahead of you. His double-edged charm combines a nearly childlike fascination with the unfamiliar, even the banally unfamiliar -- a man who has everything, he will nonetheless study your $30 wristwatch with real interest -- and a grown-up ability to make it all feel familiar and comfortable.

During my first encounter with Johnson, he is getting his feet done. In an upstairs dressing room at Paramount Studios, a woman bends over his plus-size-13s, silently brandishing an array of pedicure instruments one by one. She focuses on her work, moving nothing but her hands, clearly wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible during this interview -- she probably wonders, as I do, whether I can conduct a serious interview at all with a barefoot Magic -- but Johnson is not quite granting her invisibility. Even as he talks to me he fixes her with a quizzical gaze, studies her clippers and files, mentally notes her progress, lifts a foot and offers another before she has a chance to ask. He acts like he gets this done all the time and like he's never gotten it done before (the pedicure, not the interview).

The second time we meet, Johnson's late-night Fox TV show, The Magic Hour, has been unceremoniously canceled less than six weeks after its premiere. He is philosophical about it, but there's a notable condensation of his spirit since I saw him last; he's disappointed. He does not like to fail -- it happens rarely -- or to be denied a stage. Ill-starred as The Magic Hour was, it at least occasionally focused the altruism in people who sneered for a living. During one of the final shows, the red-eyed rapper Coolio stopped Johnson in midsentence to give him a nod for his ongoing development activity in the hood. "Nobody talks about that," Coolio said heatedly. Johnson smiled -- a small smile, by Magic standards -- and shrugged. "Thanks, man," he said. "I just try to keep it real, like you."

 

For Johnson, keeping it real means keeping it moving. Onward and upward: One of the tenants he's working to secure for the Santa Barbara Plaza is Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. ("You know them, don't you?" he tells more than asks me, an eager, faraway look in his eyes, and I nod vigorously, thinking I may have seen Krispy Kreme in a movie.) His record label, Magic Johnson Music, debuted last August. In October, his talent-management and promotions group became a consultant to Mike Tyson, and determined to recast his sordid image; Johnson stood at the boxer's side and vowed that when Tyson begins making millions again, he'll make sure he has enough "life skills" to put the money to good use. This Sunday, Passing Glory, the first production from Magic Johnson Entertainment, premieres on TNT.

It's too obvious, but it bears saying: Johnson could be a politician, one of the old-fashioned variety that kisses babies and flashes the victory sign. Someone recently suggested to him that he run for mayor. He laughs at the thought, but not dismissively; it is another unfamiliar thing to examine, at least for a moment. "Wow, I would love to be that guy," he muses at the prospect of being a leader. "But people would have to decide who that is. I fight our fights for us; I know what it's like to approach a company and get rejected. I'm not scared to invest my money, put it up. God blessed me with a vision. I can see something and make it happen. Everybody -- black, white, Chicano, Japanese -- has come up and commended me on the job I'm doing in the community. Just today, a white guy told me, 'Congratulations on doing something that nobody's doing,' and he was firm about it. It was nice to hear." He smiles ruefully. "But I'm just a country boy from Lansing. People have also said, 'Boy, you crazy.'"


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