Commentary

At 50, Magic still has rare vision

Magic Johnson's impact off the court just as important as trail he blazed on it

Originally Published: August 14, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Magic JohnsonNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesEven in retirement, Magic Johnson, who turned 50 Aug 14., continues to make an impact on the NBA.
One thing hasn't changed about Magic Johnson as he turns 50 today. It's the quality that always made him such a unique basketball player. His vision.

It's not just the clear view of the court that his stature as a 6-foot-9 point guard afforded him against the smaller players that usually manned the position. It was the way he processed the intake. He could see things before they happened, throw passes not only to where people were but where they should be. His mind worked faster than yours. You could watch the game, think "Worthy's open" and before you even completed the thought the ball had been delivered to his hands.

Now Johnson uses his vision to look back on his life's journey, to contemplate its extraordinary arc, and to recognize exactly what matters the most.

"Friendships and family, my wife and kids, you have a sense of understanding how valuable and important they are," Johnson says. "You value life and existence and waking up every morning."

He goes down the list of his life accomplishments as though he's a walking Wikipedia page. Playing in the NBA. Eighteen years of marriage to his wife, Cookie. Father to Andre, Earvin and Elisa; and for the past eight months, grandfather to Andre's daughter, Gabriella. Business holdings that have reached $1 billion in a real estate fund and $550 million in an equity fund, more than 100 Starbucks franchises, a baker's dozen of 24 Hour Fitness centers. Thousands of students sent to college through the United Negro College Fund and his own foundation's Taylor Michaels scholarships.

"When you think about it, it's incredible, when you think of all the things I've been able to accomplish within the 50 years," he says. "One of those things is having been living with HIV for 18 years, when most people thought I wouldn't."

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMagic shook the sports world by announcing he was HIV-positive in 1991. He has since had 18 birthdays.

He has celebrated almost 18 birthdays -- the equivalent of a legal coming-of-age -- since that Nov. 7, 1991, news conference in which he announced he was HIV-positive. In those early days of AIDS awareness we did not think he would make it to 40, let alone to 50. But the science was moving ahead of the society. It was the dawn of a new age of advances in treatment -- drug "cocktails" followed by protease inhibitors and antiretroviral therapy -- I recall a family friend who was HIV-positive who had to completely readjust his mindset, from bracing for death to figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. Johnson never needed an adjustment. From the beginning, he vowed he was "going to beat the disease," and with the help of drugs, diet and exercise he has.

In many ways his accomplishments after learning he had the virus are greater than the five NBA championships and one NCAA championship he won before then: winning an Olympic gold medal, opening movie theaters and restaurants in underserved urban areas across the country, watching his kids grow up, buying an ownership stake in the Los Angeles Lakers, even fulfilling his dream of hosting a talk show. (Some things went better than others.)

At this point the remarkable thing isn't how old he is now, it's how young he was then. He was only 32 when he retired the first time, fresh off an appearance against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals. His 79 games played, 989 assists, 80 3-pointers and 90.6 percent free-throw shooting in 1990-91 were the second-best of his career in each of those categories.

Not only did the Lakers have Magic on the court, they had the wizardry of Jerry West in the front office. West drafted Serbian Vlade Divac long before European players were in vogue. He had signed Sam Perkins, who still had 10 years and two more NBA Finals appearances in him. Johnson could have waged a series of championship battles with Jordan in the '90s the way he did with Larry Bird in the '80s. Perhaps if Johnson had kept playing, if the remainder of his career consisted of more than his 32-game comeback in 1996, he would have exceeded Jordan's total of six championship rings or maintained his all-time assists crown that John Stockton later grabbed from him.

"I know I could have done so much more," Johnson says. "More championships to win, more assists to get.

"But I don't sit at home and say, 'I could've …' I had the best career a man can have."

He went to the NBA Finals nine times in 12 seasons in a post-merger, post-expansion league. Think about that: playing for the championship for 75 percent of his career.

"That'll never happen again," he says. "Um-ummmm. Not again."

It wasn't just the success, it was the style. Showtime. No matter if the opponent made or missed the shot, Johnson and the Lakers were pushing it right back down their throats the instant they regained possession. He doesn't see that anymore when he analyzes games now in his latest television role at ABC/ESPN. As he has watched the retrospective of his most memorable games running on NBA TV as a birthday tribute this week, while his daughter giggles at the sideburns and short shorts he wore in the early 1980s, Johnson realized just how special those Laker teams were.

"We changed basketball," he says.

And that, in itself, is enough. More years would have only meant more numbers, not more impact. Thus the lack of remorse at a career cut short.

"Just celebrate the life you had, not the life you could've had," Johnson says.

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson's control of the floor helped the Lakers to five titles during his 13-season career.

As the birthday cakes get crowded with candles, most people find it difficult to stay relevant. That's not an issue for Johnson. He's the model for the athlete/entertainer-turned-entrepreneur, such as Jay-Z or Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. He's as beloved as ever in Los Angeles; when the Lakers celebrated their most recent championship in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Johnson received one of the loudest cheers of the day when he descended the stadium's steps. The current batch of great point guards, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, et al., constantly invoke references to Magic, still the standard for the position.

You can see Johnson's touch in, say, Baron Davis' showmanship on the court and activity off it.

"Everything that he has done and is doing, I've tried to model myself after that and kind of do a case study in him and everything that he embodies," Davis said this week while taking a break from his summer basketball camp for 125 kids. "Find out where my niche is within that. His impact, the way he used his impact to reach the community and reach a lot of people across the world makes me want to do it on my level. In no way, shape or form am I a Magic Johnson, but I know that with my fans and the things that I'm doing I can have an impact on the level that I'm at."

We're into the second generation of his influence now, the players who grew up watching the players who grew up watching Magic, something that didn't dawn on me until I asked 24-year-old Trevor Ariza about Johnson and he said, "Baron looks up to him a lot, and I look up to Baron." The notion that there are adults without a direct recollection of Johnson in his prime is jarring to those of us who were around to see it. To Johnson, it's actually reassuring, a sign of lasting impact, the closest thing to immortality.

There's not much of a bucket list for him. The goal is more of the same. Put in another 10 years of work, then travel the world. He's already visited most of the globe, but this time he wants to do it at a more leisurely pace. His plans for the birthday weekend and beyond?

"Just doing the things you enjoy," he says.

For Magic Johnson, life after 50 isn't different at all.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.