10 things you didn’t know about Magic Johnson
UNKNOWNS

10 things you didn’t know about Magic Johnson

For a guy like Magic Johnson, whose life seemingly became an open book the moment he announced to the world he was HIV positive, it seems like all the cards are on the table. From his personal life, an all-time great NBA career, and his rise as an entrepreneur, everything about this NBA icon seems like common knowledge every basketball fan is aware of. But it’s not. From his mother’s stance on his nickname to his presence in the music and gaming industries, here are 10 things you didn’t know about Earvin Magic Johnson.

His mother felt the nickname ‘Magic’ was blasphemous

Born in Lansing, Michigan, Earvin Johnson Jr. spent his days singing on street corners and playing basketball on local playgrounds. “June Bug,” as referred to by his neighbors, was on the court by 7:30 most days, trying out the moves he had seen while watching games with his father. And it paid off.

Going into high school, Johnson already seemed destined for greatness. However, he was still stuck with his childhood nickname — one that didn’t match his magic on the floor. It took one incredible freshman year performance and a sportswriter’s initiative for that to change.

Fred Stabley, Jr., a sportswriter for the Lansing State Journal, witnessed the 15-year-old Johnson notch 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists and decided the rising star needed a new nickname. He opted for “Magic” — now one of the most iconic nicknames in NBA history. But his mother, Christine, a devout Christian, never approved of it. In fact, she thought it was blasphemous. Wonder if he changed her mind after her son’s all-time great NBA run. 

He was a coin flip away from joining the Bulls

Possibly the most significant sliding doors moment in NBA history happened on April 19, 1979. The no.1 pick in the draft used to be determined between the worst team of each conference. The Bulls had conducted a fan poll asking heads or tails. Heads won by an extensive margin. Tails would’ve brought Magic to Chicago.

Injuries and a coaching change in ’78/’79 caused the Bulls to collapse to a 31-51 record, dead last in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers had Kareem on their team but were struggling. They finished the season as the 5th team in the West. However, LA had the New Orleans Jazz draft pick, so they ended up in the coin flip. As it turns out, being a gentleman pays out.

Bill Sharman and I were on the call with the league. He was representing the Lakers at the time. The people in New York were asking us who wanted to call it. I immediately said we had this fan vote and, ‘Bill. if it’s OK with you, let me call it.‘ Bill said, ‘fine.’ So I called it heads. It came out tails.

Rod Thorn, NBA

The Bulls drafted power forward David Greenwood from UCLA, who had a solid NBA career but nowhere near Magic Johnson. This coin flip was crucial for the Lakers as well – Kareem was growing frustrated with the team and even hinted at retirement. Playing with Magic changed his mind. It also changed the NBA as we know it.

It seems absurd to say you were lucky not to win the coin flip that would bring Magic to Chicago. Drafting Michael Jeffrey Jordan in ’84 makes that coin flip loss the best one in Chicago history.

He is one of only eight players to win an NCAA championship, an NBA title, and an Olympic gold medal

Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Jerry Lucas, Quinn Buckner, Clyde Lovellette, and Anthony Davis — that’s the list of players who won an NCAA championship, an NBA title, and an Olympic Gold Medal. The only guy missing is Magic Johnson — the eighth member of this exclusive club.

Magic’s legendary rivalry with Larry Bird began on the collegiate level when the two faced each other in the finals of the 1979 NCAA tournament. Johnson was the one who came out with the ring, as his Michigan State defeated Bird’s Indiana State 75-64. It was the overture of the greatest basketball rivalry ever, one we would witness in the NBA for years to come.

Magic went on to have a historically great NBA career, winning five championships with the Lakers, becoming the greatest point guard the league has ever seen. His shortened basketball career was rounded with him winning the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics as part of the Dream Team, the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled.

“Never fear, E.J. is here.”

Game 6 of the ’80 NBA Finals – perhaps the most iconic performances of Magic’s NBA career – took the whole NBA community by storm. But not its protagonist. He saw it coming.

While boarding the plane to Philly, with the Lakers up 3-2 against the 76ers, rookie Magic Johnson winked at head coach Paul Westhead and said, “never fear, E.J. is here!” He then started the game at center, in place of injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – the regular-season MVP who was averaging 33 points and 14 rebounds in the series – and put up a performance for the ages.

Johnson finished the game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists, shooting 14-for-23 from the floor and 14-for-14 from the free-throw line — a performance he describes as his greatest NBA game ever. The Lakers beat the Sixers 123-107, clinching the organization’s seventh championship trophy. Magic won the Finals MVP, becoming the only player in NBA history to win the award as a rookie. He finished the series averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.7 assists.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have a song dedicated to him

It’s no secret Flea, the bassist of the rock band Red Hot Chilli Peppers is an avid LA Lakers fan. So the fact they have a song dedicated to one of the best players in the organization’s history shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The band paid homage to Johnson with the song “Magic Johnson,” which featured on their album Mother’s Milk of ’89. And while the track is mostly about Johnson and his incredible play on the court, RHCP didn’t fail to shot out his teammates as well, starting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“The one and only know if his kind sits in a throne/Not for the records that he holds but for being bald and bold/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all-time great super superstar”), James Worthy (“Worthy’s hot with his tomahawk/Take it to the hole, make your mamma talk”), A.C. Green (“From the hand of a man named A.C. Green/Slam so hard, break your TV screen”), and Byron Scott (“Scott stops pops and drops it in/On his way back, gets a little skin”).

His video game, Magic Johnson’s Fast Break, was released in ’88

Naming a video game after NBA stars was another way of honoring the league’s top performers during the ’80s. One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird dropped first in ’83, then Electronic Arts released Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, and just a year later, Arcadia Systems developed Magic Johnson’s Fast Break — a side-scrolling basketball sports game featuring the Lakers superstar.

In ’90, Tradewest published a remake of the game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Unlike the old version, which only supported one and two-player modes, the NES iteration allowed three or four players to enjoy the experience simultaneously. It was one of several celebrity-endorsed sports games published by Tradewest and was promoted with a television advertisement campaign.

He bonded with Larry Bird during a 1986 Converse commercial

The Magic-Bird rivalry dates all the way back to the aforementioned ’79 NCAA Finals. But it wasn’t until ’86 that their rivalry turned into friendship. And it all began in French Lick, Indiana on a set of a sneaker commercial.

“I did not want to go to Indiana,” Johnson said of the ’86 encounter. “I was going to his home, too. I protested.” But the protest bore no fruits, and Magic wound up in Bird’s hometown. They shot the first part of the Converse commercial, and afterward, it was time for lunch. Magic wanted to head to his trailer, but instead, Larry invited him into his house. Larry’s mom was waiting with food – and a big hug. “His mom greeted me on the porch,” Johnson said. “It was a ‘Mom Bird’ hug like my mom would hug me. I got to know Larry the man that day, and he got to know Earvin.”

That was the day two rivals became friends. And they remain friends ever since. Except when it was time to play basketball. For those 48 minutes, they were still the biggest rivals in the association.

He found out he was HIV positive during a physical examination for a life insurance policy

In October ’91, the Lakers superstar took a routine physical for a life insurance policy. A few days later, he was called into the doctor’s office, and his life, as well as the NBA, was changed forever.

Magic tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. At that point, the disease had been around for nearly a decade, claiming over 14,000 lives during the ’80s. On November 7, a 5x NBA champion made a public announcement he would retire from the game of basketball, vowing to “battle this deadly disease.” Three decades later, his contagious smile is still around. And basketball thing aside, that’s what matters the most.

He admitted to sleeping with 300 to 500 people per year before his HIV diagnosis

The Lakers legend initially said that he did not know how he contracted the virus but later acknowledged that it must’ve been through having numerous sexual partners during his playing career. Jerry West’s autobiography West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life reveals just how many.

In the book, Johnson admitted to sleeping with 300 to 500 women each year before his HIV diagnosis. The Logo went on to say that the Lakers’ locker room during the ’80s was every bit as debaucherous as anyone could imagine. He said Magic would take women back to the sauna right after games before doing interviews with the press. I’m sure Wilt Chamberlain would be proud.

His coaching record is 5-11.

Three months after the HIV announcement, Magic made a triumphant appearance at the ’92 All-Star Game. He led the West to a 153-113 win over the East and even earned the All-Star Game MVP Award. He attempted a comeback to the Lakers in the fall of ’92, but due to players’ fear of playing against him, Johnson was forced to quit. At that point, Johnson was eager to return to basketball. In any shape or form, he wanted to be back in the NBA. And nearly two years later, his wish came true.

With 16 games left in the 1993-94 season, Magic replaced Randy Pfund as the Lakers head coach. And the team was off to a great start, winning five straight games since Earvin took over. But after they lost five of its next six outings, Johnson announced that he would not return as coach the following season. Magic ended his coaching career with 5-11, failing his mission of salvaging the Lakers’ postseason chances, missing out on making it to the ‘promised land’ for the first time in 18 years.