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Magic Johnson's career pivot

CHERYL W THOMPSON, HOST:

And finally today, we want to bring you a conversation with Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who is often called the best point guard in NBA history. His legacy is undeniable. In the 1979 NCAA championship game, Magic led Michigan State to victory over the previously undefeated Indiana State. That game, to this day, is still the most watched college basketball game in history. And over his career, Magic has won five NBA championships with the LA Lakers. But behind the basketball success is a man who is deeply committed to his community and social justice. Here's his conversation with host Jay Williams on a recent episode of The Limits, where Magic talks about what motivated him to become an entrepreneur.

MAGIC JOHNSON: I've always knew that I wanted to become a businessman. I just had to get mentors to help me understand business. And so I was smart enough to get mentors who gave me great advice and who helped me get started. And so the LA riots really jumpstarted my business life after the riots because we tore down our own community. Latinos, African Americans - they tore down and burned down our own businesses. So now we had a problem because now all these storefronts were gone, but also all these jobs were gone. And so I said, I got to do something about that.

And so Jay, I built these theaters. But what it did was - it was a place where minorities could go take their family right in their own community. But also, it created a lot of jobs - construction jobs and jobs working within the four walls of the theater as well. And so my first theater came in top 10 highest-grossing theaters in the nation. Everybody was shocked. Wait a minute - how is Magic making that type of money at a theater where they thought they were going to burn it down, tear it down, tear it up? And it never happened. That actually gave me the track record I needed. So I built six of them, Jay - Magic Johnson Theatres. And the great thing I did was this. I talked to all my friends. I said, when you have your movie premiere, you can have it right here in the 'hood. Now, I have Michael Jackson in the neighborhood. Man, people went nuts, man. They went crazy, you know? And then, from then on, everything changed, the mindset of people about urban America.

JAY WILLIAMS, BYLINE: So, Magic, one of the reasons I was really excited for this interview was not only do I emulate you in some of the moves you make business-wise and personality and how I see you treat people, but I truly believe that everybody I've had on my podcasts and a lot of people in the world - some people more extreme than the others - have gone through their sort of accident. Like, I had a quote-unquote, "motorcycle accident." But life happens to people. One of the things that happened to you was, in 1991, you got diagnosed with HIV. And I know this is a very serious topic for you. How did you deal with that initial process of making that announcement?

JOHNSON: That was the toughest, toughest thing I've ever had to deal with ever in my life. You know, you think you've done everything right - you know? - your whole life, in terms of - in your basketball career, make the right decision, make the right moves. And now, all that comes tumbling down. And then he tells me that I probably can't play no more. Oh, man.

But more than that, Jay, it was the fact that now the unknown - because I tried to ask him, am I going to be here because most - what I knew about HIV and AIDS, most people die. So that was really on my mind. Am I going to be here? What's going to happen to me? I just got married to my beautiful wife, Cookie. She was pregnant with our son, E.J., at that time. And I asked him, what does that mean for her and the baby? He didn't know because they had to run a test on both of them. So after trying to get myself together after a couple of hours being in the doctor's office and asking him questions like, OK, what do I have to do to be here? He said, hey, you got to take your meds. You have to have a positive attitude. You have to now accept your new status. I said, OK, I can do those things, but it's going to kill me for the next week or two to just worry about whether Cookie is healthy or not and the baby, right?

WILLIAMS: I can't imagine.

JOHNSON: And it did, man. It drove me absolutely crazy. Going home from the doctor's office to our home now to tell her that I have HIV was the hardest thing I ever had to do - not knowing what she was going to do - her reaction. And sure enough, I got home and told her. And, Jay, I told her. I said, I can understand if you want to leave, you know? I get it. And, man, she hit me so hard upside my head. And she said, you know what? We're going to beat this together. And that's when I knew I was going to be here for a long time. Because if she had left, I probably wouldn't be sitting here in this interview, right now, right? Now, on the flip side of that, a lot of the sponsors dropped me.

WILLIAMS: Why was that, Magic?

JOHNSON: You know, during that time, it was like nobody talked about HIV and AIDS, remember? It was - you had to talk in the back room. You had to whisper about it. I mean, it was a lot of different things going on at that time, Jay, that we had to change stereotypes. And so we were able to do that - not just me, but a lot of great HIV and AIDS organizations around this world and definitely here in this country. The numbers start rising in the Black and brown community, so I knew I had to go there to start educating our people about HIV and AIDS and giving them the real information and not the misinformation that was going on in our community. Black churches, historically Black colleges, inner city high schools - I was speaking all around the country educating people about HIV and AIDS. It helped me feel better too, Jay, about my new status and that I had to retire from the Lakers. So I needed to do something. I worked out like crazy, but then I had to put my energy into something else. So I put it into educating people about HIV and AIDS around the country.

WILLIAMS: So one final question - we talk a bit about how you've maintained the balance between Magic and Earvin, right? Tell me what the difference between them is today and where you're at in life now.

JOHNSON: So Earvin just want to be walking with Cookie and - or sitting on a lawn chair or on the beach just talking to her, enjoying my family, man. That's who I am. I'm a family man. I love my kids. I love my grandchildren. So that's Earvin. He's just away from all the limelight and all the way - away from all the stuff. So that's the difference between the two. And I know when to turn Magic on. So if I'm out, and that elevator says (imitating bell) ding, and it opens up - (imitating bell) ding. Hey. Hi, everybody. I'm smiling, high-fiving, taking pictures, you know. And then Earvin knows when to just be quiet and just relax. And so that's the difference between the two.

THOMPSON: That was basketball superstar Magic Johnson speaking with Jay Williams. To hear more from that conversation and other episodes of the Limits, visit npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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