Earvin “Magic” Johnson has one of the most recognizable nicknames in sports, but he recently earned a new one: “Grandpa.” It’s hard to believe it, but it’s been nearly 30 years since Johnson, who grew up in Lansing and played basketball at Everett High School, led the Michigan State University Spartans to the national title. He went on to win championships at the highest level with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Olympic Dream Team, and was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
“HOF” is just one moniker Johnson scrawled, along with “Showtime” and “Magic,” while signing autographs last week at Barnes & Noble in East Lansing during a promotional appearance for his new book, “32 Ways to be a Champion in Business.”
Johnson bantered casually with the more than 300 fans, as they got their books and other memorabilia signed and their photo taken with their hometown hero.
For more than two hours, Johnson dished out books with the same efficiency he did assists in the NBA. Many in line brought personal items to have signed, such as one-of-a kind photos of Johnson playing high school or college basketball.
Johnson, who made it through his playing days with relatively few injuries, is learning that book tours can be dangerous; he had to cancel a previously scheduled East Lansing appearance due to an inflamed finger from doing three signings in one day.
Following the signing, Johnson said he decided to write the book after being asked repeatedly at speaking engagements to leave something behind about his business career. “I didn’t have anything to leave,” he said.
The book is a concise guide to how the former NBA star built Magic Johnson Enterprises, a company that provides food service to major corporations, owns more than 100 Starbucks and 31 Burger Kings and has been steadily building entertainment complexes in urban areas. In the book, Johnson, 49, recounts how early in his post-basketball career, business people didn’t take him seriously, and they seemed more interested in getting basketballs signed than listening to his business pitch.
Johnson may have been forced to enter the business world prematurely after his front-page announcement of contracting HIV, but the time he spent in the nation’s urban areas playing basketball had given him a dream of bringing “brand-name retail” to central cities. His ever-expanding empire includes movie theaters and fitness centers, and Starbucks and Burger King customers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama are often surprised to hear his voice greet them at the drive thru.
Johnson claims his days on the court helped him in business, especially when it comes to discipline and work ethic. “I’m a perfectionist because of [coaches] Jud Heathcote and George Fox and Pat Riley,” Johnson said. “I’m still playing point guard. I tried to make the players around me better and they made me better.”
Johnson said his hometown, especially the mentoring of developer Joel Ferguson and lobbyist-businessman Gregory Eaton, were big influences in his life. “I owe a lot to Lansing,” he said. “My values and what I stand for really all started here.”
The Los Angeles businessman is very upbeat in a down economy, and he should be. Right before the bust, his real estate fund was able to raise $1 billion, and his private equity capital fund raised $500 million, which he plans to invest in under-valued market opportunities and urban areas. His company recently purchased American Food Service, which puts the beef in Burger King’s whoppers. “Our business has really taken off by leaps and bounds,” he said.
Johnson is also launching a new company, Magic Johnson Workforce Solutions, which will focus on retraining workers for new jobs, with operations in Atlanta, L.A. and either Chicago or Michigan. “We’ve got to get people back to work,” he said.
Johnson invested time and money into the recent presidential election as well. He was in Lansing in October to promote Barack Obama’s urban agenda. Johnson and his wife, Cookie, spent election night at the home of neighbor and movie star Samuel L. Jackson. “We all just started crying,” he said. “It was a great moment, and one we didn’t think we would ever see in our lifetime.”
After almost 30 years, Johnson said he is surprised that the Final between MSU and Indiana State University is still the most watched NCAA Finals game in history. He and Larry Bird, who played for Indiana State University, have been credited with reinvigorating college and professional basketball.
In a moment of quiet introspection, Johnson said, “Life changes so quick for you. I love coming here and seeing everybody, going to Sir Pizza, Mancinos and Turkeyman.”
Hopefully he took some of that food to go. By Christmas Day, Johnson was back in L.A. and featured on the half-time report of the Lakers-Celtics game. Johnson, whose hectic schedule and far-flung interests keep him on the move, knows exactly where he will be for two specific events in the coming months. When asked where he will be on Jan. 20, he answered with a one-liner: “D.C.”
And he can’t wait to take his dad to the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit. He would like to see a replay of the 1979 Spartans.