Entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson

The Lakers legend-turned-entrepreneur reflects on the source of his competitive nature and business ethic and explains why he didn’t go into hibernation after announcing his diagnosis with the HIV virus.

After singularly changing the way basketball is played, Johnson's magic is now focused on the business world. As chair-CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, he partnered with major brands like Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness and AMC to lead a major economic push in ethnically diverse communities throughout the U.S. He also has a growing media portfolio that includes magazines, radio stations and a new basic cable network (Aspire) and is part of the new ownership team of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Through his foundation, he's an avid supporter of HIV education and of such organizations as the United Negro College Fund.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Magic Johnson on this program. In addition to the deal that could see him as part of the new ownership group of the L.A. Dodgers, he’s also preparing to launch a new TV network aimed at African Americans – a wonderful title, I love it – Aspire.

On April 11th a new Broadway play opens called “Magic Bird” which explores the friendship and rivalry, for that matter, between Magic and another NBA great, Larry Bird. So here now, a preview of “Magic Bird.”


Tavis: Broadway play. I was thinking that the only thing left to do for you is to have somebody name a planet or a constellation after you. (Laughter) It’s like what else is left on planet Earth? Is there anything left to do now, now that you’re conquering Broadway too?

“Earvin “Magic” Johnson:” Well, look, that’s just a blessing from God, man. Larry and I are still blown away, Tavis, by having a play after our career. I just want to be a businessman. The play is scary, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s a blessing. It’s going great.

But I’m a businessman. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be after playing basketball and knock on wood, that’s going very well.

Tavis: Yeah. I saw a piece in the “Times” this weekend, as a matter of fact, “The New York Times,” talking about the preview, the rehearsal that you went to see, and you had some – Magic Johnson the director, the producer, had some notes for the guy (laughter) who plays you. What did you tell him about the fact that he wasn’t smiling enough?

Johnson: I told Kevin, I said, “Look, man, Larry Bird’s the one who frowns. Magic is the one who smiles.” (Laughter) I said, “You’ve got to smile.” So he got the notes, but my personality got to come out, so that’s what I was trying to explain to him, that I love to win, I love to play basketball, I was a fierce competitor, but at the same time I would smile. So I wanted him to make sure he knew that so that he could really bring out the true Magic out on the stage.

Tavis: What have you been smiling about for all these years? (Laughter) I ask that because it’s not like it became a creation for you. I say this with no disrespect at all, because it was a great marketing tool for him and he’s talked about it in places heretofore, and that’s George Foreman.

Foreman initially was the guy that wouldn’t grin. Ali was the guy who would clown and had that handsome – and he would tell you how handsome he was, how pretty he was. But Foreman was the exact opposite. At a certain point in Foreman’s career he became the guy that everybody loves. He took on the Magic Johnson smile.

But one looks back at your career, Michigan State and prior to, you’ve always had that.

Johnson: Yeah. Well, I got blessed from my mom. She’s the personality, she’s the one who smiled, so I took on part of her, and who also wanted to help and save the world. Then I took on part of my dad, who is tough.

Tavis: That work ethic.

Johnson: Yes.

Tavis: On that garbage truck.

Johnson: Exactly, exactly, each and every day. So I got a piece of both of them, and probably the best piece of both of them, in me, and so I’m a guy who just enjoys life. I got a lot to smile about – a beautiful wife in Cookie and three wonderful kids.

Now I’m a grandfather, I got two grandkids. So all those things are a lot to smile about. Then my path has been incredible. You think about it, Tavis, here we are sitting here. You know me a long time, and 20 years living with HIV, so that I’m still here, I’m still healthy, I think I got a lot to smile about.

Tavis: I started smiling, speaking of smiling, when you said you have two grandkids. Most cats your age, which means to say that you’re still pretty young, they don’t say the grandfather word so easily. You just –

Johnson: (Laughter) No. I’m happy.

Tavis: You okay with that?

Johnson: I’m very happy. (Laughter)

Tavis: You said it so easy – “I’m a grandfather of two.”

Johnson: Yeah. I love playing with them, they’re beautiful babies. Andre, I’m so proud of him, my oldest son, who’s married. EJ’s in college, in his second year, and then the baby is Elisa; she’s got one more year of high school. So Cookie’s been incredible as a mother and I just try to be a good father.

But also never letting them they have to be in sports, because a lot of times when you play sports, a lot of times the father wants you to play sports. I never pushed that on them, and now they’re doing their own thing, which is good.

Tavis: Since you raise Cookie, when you walked in the studio I told you to tell Cookie something for me. It occurs to me I can do that now. I don’t need you. (Laughter) Hi, Cookie. I told Earvin to tell you when he got home tonight that I thought you did a wonderful job in “The Announcement.”

I loved “The Announcement,” the documentary, and it was beautiful because we know, or at least think we know, your story, but Cookie for 20 years has been pretty quiet about this. She hasn’t said a whole lot.

Johnson: No.

Tavis: To see her tell her own journey and how she navigated you coming home and telling – it was beautiful to actually see her tell her own story.

Johnson: Tavis, you’re right, and again, you know both of us very well. Cookie’s shy. She likes to stay in the background. When they came to me about doing this for 20 years anniversary so far as the announcement of HIV, I said, “Well, the only thing I would love is my wife on it.”

So I had to go home, talk to Cookie, said, “Look, Cookie, women and people want to hear from you. They’ve heard some of my story, but they really want to hear from you, because everybody don’t know how you dealt with it. So are you comfortable with explaining that?” She said, “Yes.”

So she did a wonderful job and she’s just a blessing from God. Any time you look up, this woman hung right in there with me, she supported me. Of course I said this many times, she could have left. Never wavered – her love, her support for me.

So Tavis, wow, back when I saw her back at Michigan State over 30 years ago, I thought I chose the right woman. I know I chose the right woman.

Tavis: Yeah, I know you did.

Johnson: Exactly.

Tavis: Cookie still looks like she’s at Michigan State.

Johnson: Yeah. (Laughter) Ain’t nothing changed.

Tavis: I ain’t mad at you, now. (Laughter) You look good, Cookie. You look good, girl.

Johnson: Yeah, baby, you look good. (Laughter)

Tavis: So I know there’s not a whole lot you can tell – you see what color tie I wore tonight.

Johnson: I see that.

Tavis: Did you feel that?

Johnson: You are representing.

Tavis: Did you feel that?

Johnson: You are representing.

Tavis: I wore this for you.

Johnson: Yeah, I got my Dodger gear for you, it’s coming. (Laughter) Because, see, I know he’s going to come to some games.

Tavis: Yeah. I wore my Dodger blue for you tonight. I know this deal is not done so I know there’s not a whole lot you can say about it, but a couple of things, though.

Johnson: Okay.

Tavis: Why did you want to do this deal? You’re a basketball guy.

Johnson: Great question, great question, Tavis, and nobody’s ever asked me that, so this is a great question. What happened was when you’re in business, this is a great brand, okay? A great brand.

The Dodger brand, if you think about it, it’s the Yankees, the Dodgers and then the Red Sox and then the Cubs. Those are the teams and the brands that people know in terms of baseball, right?

So I’m in L.A., I’m baseball fan. The Dodgers are for sale. So I want to thank Frank McCourt for passing the torch to me and my business partners as far as letting us have this Dodger brand.

Got great young players. So I wanted it because of I live here in Los Angeles, I’m a baseball fan way back to the Detroit Tigers when I grew up watching Gage Brown, Willy Horton, all those guys that I loved – Norm Cash. I know the whole team, Aurelio Rodriguez. I thought that I could take it to another level.

So, man, it was fierce, the bidding was fierce. A lot of people came after the Dodgers. Just knock on wood, they accepted our bid and we won, and we don’t control it until 30 days, that’s why there’s not a lot that I can say. Because then after the 30 days I can really go into it.

But I am so happy. I just left a lunch meeting before I came here and they stood up and gave me a standing ovation, and I was blown away. So this is the type of response that I’ve been getting around the city.

Tavis: Well, folk care about this brand.

Johnson: Yes.

Tavis: That’s why you got a standing ovation, because they see you as coming in to rescue it. So again, I know there’s not a whole lot you can say about the deal, but another question around the deal, since you are a businessman, how do you make decisions to attach your name to a brand and to try to resuscitate a brand that’s been severely damaged?

This brand has been really, really damaged over the past few years. I heard you thank Mr. McCourt for giving you an opportunity and that’s a beautiful thing, but as a businessman, why put your name on something? Why spend $2 billion to buy something that you know is tarnished?

Johnson: Well, because that’s the reason you spend $2 billion, is because you could take it and the whole competitive nature is to build it back up to where it was. People love this team. They love the Dodgers.

So that’s not – so you’re already in a good place, because all you need to do is now invest money into it, invest money into the team, making sure you have a good product out on the field, and take the stadium to another level and people will come back. They will come back because they want to come back. They want to come back and support this team.

Then when you think about the Dodgers is a world team and a world brand, so you have something that is very unique. So it won’t just be a Los Angeles team. They have fans in Korea, Japan, China, all the way to the Dominican.

So this is a brand that you can build something and bring it back and then will be worth even more than $2 billion, and we feel we can do that.

Tavis: The TV network – I’m just trying to run down the list of all the things you’ve got going on – so just this morning, you’ve been so busy speaking and running around you probably haven’t had a chance to see this yet, but Oprah Winfrey appeared on CBS this morning with her friend Gail on the morning show there and has made some news today, being as open as she has been to date about the O Network, and she’s talked about some of the mistakes that she’s made. I’m paraphrasing – she said she had no idea it was going to be this hard.

Johnson: Right.

Tavis: If she’d known that establishing a network would be this hard she might not have done it and done something different. I’ll let people go online and read the transcript; I’m just paraphrasing. But she opened up today about the difficulty of trying to get a network off the ground.

Now, this is Oprah Winfrey. Now, Magic Johnson ain’t no slouch, but when Oprah is laying out how difficult this was and the mistakes that she made and the challenges in making this happen, you take anything from that?

Johnson: Oh, no question about it, because that’s Oprah and that’s billions of dollars she’s worth and has, and Magic don’t have that type of capital. When you think about spending $400 million and having gotten it right, I can’t afford to spend $400 million.

So I understand everything that she’s talking about. I hope that our group and myself have learned from her mistakes. I’m targeted, though, and probably I think that’s the difference. I’m going just after African Americans. I’m going after African American families. It’s going to be a family network where we try to bring the families back watching TV.

We’re targeted that way, we understand that and I’m going for the 30 and over because BET already have the young people and TV One is a little older than them, and then I’m going older than them. So I think that we know who we’re going after. We’re going to try to hit that person who will be watching, that professional, that mom, that dad, and hopefully have their kids around watching our network.

Tavis: Is there room for another African American network on cable?

Johnson: Yeah.

Tavis: Can three survive?

Johnson: Three can survive.

Tavis: Yeah.

Johnson: Yeah, because it’s different on what we’re bringing to the table. Because Bob Johnson did a wonderful job of starting BET and I think that when you look at BET, we know who they are and they do a fine job. Cathy Hughes has done a great job with TV One, and Alfred running it.

Then I think there’s room for one more, and we’ll hit the numbers and be able to provide positive content to the people. I’m hoping that Oprah gets it right, because I cheer for Oprah, because she’s an important woman but an important African American woman.

So we want her to be successful, but I think Aspire, we’ve already hit a lot of great sponsors. It was tough in the beginning but L’Oreal came in and Chrysler has come in, so we’re getting sponsors to advertise on our network and so we’re hitting a lot of good numbers there. We’ll launch probably about June 30th to July 1st.

Tavis: Since you mentioned sponsors, it reminds me of the announcement and so much of your story, which I know well, which is that when you made the announcement, sponsors ran away, to be frank about it.

Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.

Tavis: Twenty years ago people couldn’t get – prior to that they couldn’t get to you fast enough. You were picking and choosing who you wanted to be partnered with and co-branded with us. Then the announcement is made, they run away.

You look up a few years later and they’re all back, and then some. How’d you do that?

Johnson: Just being real, being true and being honest. I think that I didn’t change. You know me. This is who I am. I’m a guy who has always been an up-front guy, and so I was hoping that one day that people would change, not to love Magic Johnson, but to understand and care about HIV and AIDS, and especially running rampant through the Latino and African American community right now.

Did I know that people would accept me and now want to come back, the sponsors and corporate America? No, I didn’t know that. My whole thing was making sure I was healthy, making sure that I built my business, and make sure that I was honest with the people in how I attained HIV, make sure that once I got out here talking about HIV and AIDS, that now the people who are living with it or the people who have to look out now, those who were not affected by HIV, let them know my story and make sure I was real with them.

Because the main thing, especially running through our community, Tavis, they need the right information, right?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Johnson: So all I’ve done is just been honest, and because of the honesty, because also the smile never left my face, I was still a guy that was out here every single day, I think they came back because they seen a real guy, and a guy who owned up to hey, it wasn’t her fault, it was my fault. I owned up to that. So I think they appreciated that.

Tavis: Why the decision to be so public, to be so out front and open? I don’t mean about the announcement – you had to tell the truth about that, because that was going to come out eventually.

Johnson: Right.

Tavis: Always better, as you know, being the entrepreneurial genius that you are, always better to control the narrative.

Johnson: That’s right.

Tavis: Tell the story on your own terms.

Johnson: That’s right.

Tavis: So I get that part. But after telling the story, why not hibernate? Why not just disappear? I say this not in disrespect; there are other people who suffered with HIV and died from it – Arthur Ashe comes to mind – who chose not to be public.

I ain’t mad at Arthur for his choice, and other folks who have made that choice. But you were the exact opposite, 180 degrees different. You made the announcement and you stayed in our faces, if I can put it that way. Why stay in our faces? Why not go somewhere – you’d made your mark, you were already an icon athlete. Why stay in our faces?

Johnson: Tavis, that’s not who I am. You can only be who you are, and so I’m a guy who loves life, I’m a guy who is a guy who lives every single day on an emotional high. So I’m not a guy who runs. I’m a guy who meets a challenge head-on, who says, “Okay,” Dr. Ho was my doctor, and I said, “Doctor Ho, what do I have to do to live?” “Take your meds, have a positive attitude and work out.” “Got it. You’re telling me if I do those things I got a good chance?” He said, “Yes.” “Okay.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years, and so if I would have ran and hid, then I probably would have died. Why? Because now I’m not being Earvin Johnson, I’m being another person. So I like to control things on my own terms, and so I’ve always been a man like that. So I’m not a runner. I’m going to meet it head-on. I’m a competitive person.

Tavis: So you asked Dr. Ho what to do to live. He gave you three answers. You said, “I can handle that, I can do those things,” and you’ve done those things, to your point, for 20 years. But I can’t imagine that 20 years ago, when you got the diagnosis, you at the time did not immediately think about dying. That you didn’t think about how long you had to live.

That’s my assumption. I can be wrong about that, but that’s my assumption. If I’m right about that, 20 years later, with all that you have to live for every day, you ever think about dying now?

Johnson: No. I did, and you were right. That’s the first thing you think about, is dying.

Tavis: I assume, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah, you’ve got to. Because now you’re getting this news and then you think it’s a death sentence yourself. So I went – I’m thinking about getting affairs in order. I didn’t know what this meant for me. I didn’t know anybody who had lived for a long time with HIV.

Then I’ll tell you what happened. I got into the HIV and AIDS community, and some unbelievable foundations, activists. They talked to me. “Hey, I’ve been living with it for 28 years.” “I’ve been dealing with it for 25 years.” I’m looking around, I said, “What?”

Tavis: This is not a death sentence.

Johnson: This is not a death sentence, but it took those people to educate me on it. Then Elizabeth Glaser was the one who really settled me down and made me feel a lot better and comfortable. She was dying of AIDS at that time, and she talked to myself, she talked to Cookie, helped Cookie out a lot, and told me I was going to be here a long time because a lot of great drugs were coming down the pipeline.

She was right. At that time when I announced it there was one drug. Now we have over 30. So I have to really compliment the HIV and AIDS community – all the great organizations nobody’s never heard about that’s doing great work every single day, from New York all the way to L.A.

Then second, definitely Elizabeth Glaser. She was just a wonderful woman and really just helped both Cookie and I.

Tavis: Does the fact that you’re still living 20 years later have anything to do with how you are driven today? You’ve always been a star, you’ve always been driven, but I wonder if that experience 20 years ago, and still not knowing how it’s going to end – for that matter, I don’t know how my life’s going to end. I may walk out and get hit by a bus today.

We never know how it’s going to end, but we know that day is coming. We just don’t know how or when it’s going to come. I wonder if that has anything to do with how driven you are today.

Johnson: I wouldn’t say it has made me more driven. I think that of course you want to spend quality time – it’s made me want to spend quality time with – more time with Cookie, the kids, the grandkids. But I was always a driven person, and I think in the beginning it made me maybe rush through things, because I didn’t know. But now, no. I feel really good. My T-cell count hasn’t changed. Everything’s been amazing.

So I think that because I’m doing well I don’t feel like I have to rush. It’s not me anyway. I’m not a rushed person. If you ask my staff, I never tell them, “Yes, right away.” It’s always, “Let me think about it.” (Laughter)

Tavis: At best, you’re like John Wooden – quick, but not in a hurry.

Johnson: Not in a hurry, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Quick, but not in a hurry, yeah, yeah. When will you know when you have overtaxed yourself? When one looks at all the things we’ve discussed tonight and all the things that you’re doing, like, where is the line? When will you know that there’s too much on your plate?

Johnson: You and I don’t live in that world. So I’m going to put you in there too. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, well.

Johnson: You got a book coming out –

Tavis: That was a little bit different. Just a little bit different.

Johnson: But see, but we’re still the same, because I’m never satisfied. I’m a person who I don’t need a lot of sleep, I love to think about the next move, the next deal.

Now, what do I worry about? I don’t want to dilute my brand, right, or hurt my brand. I don’t want to take on too much, because what I take on, I’ve got to manage it, I’ve got to execute on the strategy and then I’ve got to drive ROI, right? Got to do it. Got to do it. So –

Tavis: ROI – “return on investment.”

Johnson: Return, yeah. (Laughter) I’m sorry, return on investment.

Tavis: I saw the camera guy go, “What?” (Laughter)

Johnson: Yeah. So I have to be successful. Now, am I at a point that I feel that? Yes. So this was a great question, because I’m going to stay still. As God said, “Be still.” I’m going to be still right now for the next probably year or two, because this is enough for me.

Tavis: Right.

Johnson: Then I’ve got to make sure Aspire is successful, the Dodgers are successful. The play, we can’t control that. The actors control that, and hopefully that will be successful and I’m sure it will. But there’s enough on my plate right now, and so now I’ve got to build, because you said something earlier – why take on this?

Why? Because I’m going to spend a lot of time making sure the Dodgers are successful. Why? Because I’m going to spend time making sure Aspire is successful. I’ve got to hire the right people and make sure that they understand the Magic way of doing things, and then go out and win.

Tavis: Well, there is a Magic way of doing things.

Johnson: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: It always seems to work. I think what you just heard was that Magic will be back on this program about a year and a half from now, when he’s ready to announce what his next venture will be. (Laughter)

So we’ll put that on – Kim, put that on the calendar. (Laughter) Magic has booked himself on the show again for a year and a half from now.

Johnson: Any time you want me. Any time you want me.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Johnson: Thank you, man.

Tavis: I’m proud of you, Magic.

Johnson: Thank you.

Tavis: I’m so proud of you, man.

Johnson: You know what? Your support means a lot to me, your encouragement. Even when you send me little notes, so I really appreciate that.

Tavis: You are more than welcome. That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 24, 2012 at 1:56 pm