New Tricks

There is a small child outside the window. He's maybe 5 or 6, and he has a basketball tucked under his arm. It's almost as big as he is. He's looking through the glass--his nose is pressed against it, leaving a snotty smudge--just trying to catch a glimpse of Magic Johnson. Maybe later on, if he's lucky, he'll get the former Lakers star to sign that ball.

This kid never saw Johnson play. He wasn't even born when Johnson left Michigan State for the Los Angeles Lakers, Hollywood and five championship rings. Hell, he wasn't even born when Johnson retired from basketball amid the sad, humbling realization that he had HIV.

None of that matters to the boy. All he cares about is what he's heard of this Magic character--that and the fact that Johnson is live in Arlington, a superhero torn from comic books and deposited right in his back yard.

"My dad said he's the best," Jimmy says, eyes sparkling. "I like him, too."

Jimmy and his dad came for the grand opening of Magic's 24 Hour Fitness health club off of Cooper Avenue. Like many others, they pretend to work out. There are plenty of people sweating profusely, riding bikes and running and lifting and whatnot, but almost all of them take the time to sneak a peek at Johnson, who's doing interviews in the glass-fronted dance studio. Exercise is a fad for the beautiful people, but celebrity will always be an opiate.

"Yeah, that's a rush--seeing all these people who are fans of mine," Johnson says. He's 43 and handsome. He's a little thicker than he was during his playing days, but he looks fit, not fat. His 6-foot-9 frame fits nicely into a neatly tailored ash-gray suit; his face is freshly shaven and his hair has been recently barbered. And the smile--omnipresent when he was a player--is as large and brilliant as ever. After close to a decade away from pro hoops, he maintains the billboard-sized presence that made him a star. "These people, they know me. Maybe they've never met me, but they know me, or they feel like they do, and I feel like I know them. But you know what's great? Now, it's not just about basketball. A lot of these kids, they never got to see me with the Lakers, but they catch my face on this building, and they ask their dads, and they still want to come and meet me. That's something to be proud of."

He's trying to steer me toward business talk. Ostensibly, that's why I'm here, to discuss his reincarnation as a moneymaker. Like the rest of these people, I'm a complete fraud, because I care a whole lot less about his business acumen than I do about the championships he won and the no-look passes he threw. But Magic's the engaging type, the sort of guy you'd bullshit with if you ever met him at a bar--which you wouldn't, because he's so busy with all of his companies--so talking about his post-career accomplishments is far from boring. I mean, he's Magic, understand?

Since his retirement, he's served on a presidential panel on AIDS, coached the Lakers on an interim basis and hosted an ill-conceived talk show called The Magic Hour ("Boy, that was just a bad show," he admits. "We had no idea what we were doing"). He's not shy about delving into new forums. But those other forays were little more than curiosities, something to occupy his time while he acquainted himself with the intricacies of business.

He now owns five movie theaters, 35 Starbucks, two T.G.I. Friday's restaurants, 47 Fatburger stores and six 24 Hour Fitness clubs, including two in the D-FW area (the other is off Central Expressway near Walnut Hill). That's in addition to serving as the executive producer on a new movie called Brown Sugar opening this week. So his business endeavors may not be as hip as his hoops career, but they've been pretty successful, too.

"I love it; I love everything about it," he offers softly. "And this is far more challenging for me. For sure. Basketball, I played it so long, and at such a young age, that it just came natural to me. Like just now, I was in Seattle the other day at the University of Washington with those guys, playing with them. That was fun, oh yeah. They didn't understand that, at my age, that I can do the things that I can do. Or that I'm in as good of shape as I'm in. I shocked them.

"But this, the business, this is great. I enjoy it so much, and I'm lucky to have prospered at it. It's not easy. I had to go back to school for it. But look out name is on that."

He's clearly thrilled at what he's done in this arena, but you might be getting the wrong idea. Magic Johnson isn't in it solely for the money, though the cash flow isn't bad. No, where other athletes slink into the background when their playing days are done, Magic has fixed himself in the forefront. The movie theaters, the Starbucks, the burger stores--the majority of them are in the inner cities. He wants to give back. He wants to show kids that sports are fine, but if that doesn't work, they can be entrepreneurs or something nobler.

In a sporting world gone thug, where stars like Allen Iverson tote guns and shirk from anything resembling responsibility, it's a refreshing attitude. One that makes you love that smile all over again--for different reasons.

"Giving back, that's important to me," Johnson says. "That's why you see me in the bad parts of L.A. or Detroit or wherever I open a place. Somebody helped me along the way, and now I'm trying to help like that. The thing is, I've been blessed...I've been blessed to make it, first in basketball, now with my businesses. That doesn't make me any better than the people who came to see me today; it just makes me more fortunate. These young kids who have dreams--whatever they are...doctors, lawyers or whatever--I'm trying to show them that they don't have to get mixed up in bad stuff. Instead, they've got to educate themselves. And they can do it. They can educate themselves and make it to this point. If I can do it, so can they. Because making it in basketball didn't mean I was going to make it in business."

No, but it helped. And he's aware of that, otherwise his face wouldn't be plastered all over this club and outlined in Lakers colors--purple and gold trim.

He's leaving Dallas-Fort Worth tomorrow, off to Detroit to lecture on some sort of economics (anything more complicated than balancing a checkbook is immediately lost on me). After that, it's New York, then Chicago, then back to L.A. All for business. Somewhere in there he's going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, though he mentions that only in passing. That's the way it is for Magic Johnson, CEO--basketball just seems so long ago.

Before jetting off to Detroit, Johnson makes an appearance on the health-club floor. He signs autographs, poses for pictures, flashes that trademark grin. Magic is fresh and dynamic, just like all those fast breaks he led way back when. He even takes care of Jimmy's ball, and chats the boy up.

Business or basketball, it doesn't much matter. Magic has the touch.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez