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“Magic Johnson should have been Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan” — MJ opens up about his early feud with Magic

From jealousy of shoe deals to the Freezout, Magic and Jordan always had a vendetta from the very beginning.
Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan on the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona

Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan doesn’t subscribe to the buddy-buddy dynamic for players that are not on his side. You didn’t need to read this to know that side of Jordan exists. But what you might not know is that Jordan had a particular vendetta for Magic Johnson that came from an early falling-out.

Jealousy is a cruel disease

Before he was Michael Jordan, Mike used to idolize Magic. He even mimicked Johnson so much that his high school friends called him Magic Mike. "I even had Magic Mike on my car,” said MJ on The Icons Club Podcast. It wasn’t long before Mike would make a helluva name for himself, playing under the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina. Players would unknowingly begin to read this kid's name everywhere.

Nike was so ahead of his stardom to come, they gave Michael, coming straight off an NCAA championship, a half a million-dollar contract with his own shoe deal - all before he had ever made a basket as a professional. It’s hard to explain how unprecedented this was at the time. In 1984, Magic Johnson didn’t have his own shoe. Neither did Julius Erving or Larry Bird. No one had one except Ralph Sampson, and they were by no means dinting the culture like ‘Air Jordan’ was (and still is).

Part of Nike’s stipulation for the mega-contract was that within his first three seasons, Jordan had to do one of these things or else they could terminate everything:

  • Win Rookie Of The Year
  • Become an All-Star
  • Average 20 points per game
  • Sell $4 million worth of shoes

By Jordan’s first season, he had already accomplished the first three and managed to rack in $126 million worth in shoe sales!

Jordan would much later comment, "It was a great idea, a great concept and next thing you know, it got bigger than any other shoe company. Which I think had to do with the jealousy and animosities throughout the league."

But it wasn’t just the shoes that Jordan was wearing against the permission of the NBA. On the Icons Club podcast, Jordan even professed that Nike’s aim with his brand was “to dominate from head to toe.” As fans crammed through doors to watch MJ in the warmup lines before games, everybody else would wear their regular warmup tracksuits. But MJ wasn't everybody and had nothing regular about him. He instead wore his custom Nike sweats.

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NBA players were beginning to take notice of this popular kid who wasn’t following rules and getting paid for it, but to MJ, he was only following the advice of his agent, David Faulk.

I thought with the way I came into the league and what David Faulk… and all these other people were teaching me, was how to be a business person playing the game of basketball,” contended MJ on the TBOB podcast.

Magic orchestrates the freezeout

While Isiah Thomas might take all the credit for the freezeout as Jordan’s number one nemesis, Magic played a leading part in orchestrating that fateful day. The chill of Jordan’s first All-Star game of ‘85 refers to when all of the east starters made a pack not to pass to the young Jordan. On top of this, George ‘The IceMan’ Gervin played lock-down defense on MJ like his post-season was on the line. Interestingly, Isiah and Magic were taking it conspicuously easy on each other the entire game.

Jordan took nine shots, the lowest of all east starters. He went 2-9, but even as it was happening, young MJ was still so naive about what was actually happening.

"I didn't even know, I was too imature at the time to know it was happening. I was just trying to be the best basketball player I could be. Then all the other stuff took on a life of itself,” recalled MJ on the TBOB podcast.

Like Gervin said right after, “Michael is a rookie and he has a lot to learn. Just like we all did.”

Magic was the one.

Jordan would come to know the truth not long after. For Isiah, he felt Jordan’s rage in his first game back with a then career-high 49 points, 15 rebounds performance to get the W in Detroit. But, for Magic, since they didn’t play in the same conference and the Lakers star would never openly poke the bear since he was obsessed with his wide smile nice guy reputation, their relationship fizzled out quietly.

As Jordan’s rise to fame skyrocketed, Magic was growing eerie of Converse’s lack of attention on him. Or in other words, why they couldn’t make him a star like Michael.

Magic invited him to play in his annual summer charity game in Jordan's third season. But even this was nothing more than a formality to MJ, explaining, “it was more or less the respect of your on your way. Your not there yet, but you’re on your way.”

It was clear that Jordan not only won the battle on the court but reigned havoc in the business world off it, more than any player ever, before or since.

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