Lessons Learned from a Living Legend

I grew up in Lansing, Michigan just a couple of blocks away from Everett High School. Across town, Earvin Johnson, Jr. lived almost as close to Sexton High School. Lansing had three-year high schools (grades 10, 11 and 12) after “junior high schools” (grades 7, 8 and 9). Earvin was bused to Everett High School to start his sophomore year of his high school career, and he proceeded to touch me and our 495 classmates, and so many more. Earvin arrived to quite a bit of hype as a basketball phenom. It was not until his second game in high school that he was given his well-known nickname of “Magic”. They were magical years, but lessons were learned along the way.

Leaders need to be cheerleaders and tough at times, but always supportive. Some leaders are natural. Some are made. Magic was the charismatic, natural leader in high school that people saw at Michigan State and with the Lakers. The smile is real and natural. He had fun playing basketball and helped others have fun along with him. He was also very competitive. Earvin knew that everyone wanted to score. If he could encourage a teammate to play defense and rebound, then hustle to the offensive end of the court, he would make them look good by getting them the ball where they could do something with it – many times an easy layup or even dunk. That player would play that much harder the next time down the court. I have seen Earvin cheer on teammates and get tough with them when it was needed, or they were losing heart and doubting themselves. His teammates always knew that Earvin was on their side and they were in any game together. It became cliché to say that a basketball player “makes those around him better”. Earvin epitomized this better than anyone I have ever seen given this compliment. One of our classmates was 6’7” coming into his sophomore year. He was tall, but very awkward. He played alongside Earvin for three years. I watched Earvin build his confidence and help make him become the player he could be. He was an integral part of the State Championship team of 1977 (our senior year). This player was awarded an athletic scholarship to play college basketball. It is my understanding that he reverted to his previous awkward self, and after receiving his scholarship, was cut from his college basketball team his freshman year. He never played after that. I am not sure I have ever heard of this happening before.

You need to be part of something bigger than yourself. Earvin was the quintessential team player. He is more famous for his assists than anything else. He was always a prolific scorer too. Coach George Fox told Earvin his senior year that he needed to cut down on his own scoring and get others involved and motivated. Coach Fox gave Earvin a scoring average to aim for, which Earvin hit at the end of the year, almost to the tenth of a point per game. Earvin always played as hard as anyone. He set an example of what was expected in this way. One of the most amazing things I have ever seen a high school player do was exhibit the restraint Earvin did in one game. He truly “took one for the team”. It was during a holiday tournament in Battle Creek, Michigan. The host team had a first team all-state player named Leon. Leon was about as tall as Earvin. They claimed he could do everything Earvin could do and as well. They had Leon dribble the ball, bringing the ball up court while unguarded to half court and hand the ball to a guard to get their offense started – trying to prove that Leon could handle the ball like “Magic” Johnson (there was no comparison). Flash forward. Leon picks up his fifth foul guarding Earvin after scoring 9 points to Earvin’s over 30 points. Leon walked up to Earvin and spit directly in Earvin’s face. Earvin calmly walked over to the scorer’s table to get a towel. The referee ran up to Earvin and told him he needed to line up for his free throws. Earvin told the ref he wanted to wipe his face off first. The referee saw Earvin’s face, called a technical foul and threw Leon and his head coach out of their own gym. I am not a large person and was very thin in those days. If someone spit purposely and directly in my face, I would probably have reacted by punching them in theirs. I would like to hope that I would show the restraint that Earvin showed, knowing his importance to his team. I have little doubt that Earvin Johnson could have wiped the court up with Leon, but chose not to do so for the sake of the team.

I have many more Earvin “Magic” Johnson stories I can tell. Please, do not watch the horrible “Showtime” on HBO and think that represents any of the people portrayed. It is a hatchet job on a number of people made for entertainment. If you truly want to know the Earvin “Magic” Johnson story, please watch the four-part series on Apple+ TV. You will see some clips from our high school years in it.

I am happy to be able to call Earvin “Magic” Johnson a “living legend” today. I recall the sad day when he announced his retirement from the NBA due to his having HIV. I was driving downstate in Illinois on business in a snowstorm. I was listening to the radio personality and “shock jock” Steve Dahl (most famous for his organizing “Disco Demolition” at White Sox’s park). Steve Dahl did not cut too many people much slack, especially those that did not deserve it. He preceded cutting to Earvin’s live press conference by stating that he hoped what he heard about Earvin retiring was not true. Steve stated that he came from the Detroit area and knew very well all the great things that Earvin had done for the state of Michigan and his home town of Lansing. I had to pull my car over because I could not see to drive through my tears. This was a selfish thing for me in a way. I had watched Earvin play basketball since his days at Dwight Rich Jr. High School, and maybe even Main Street Elementary School, through Michigan State University and through his Laker career. I could not imagine never being able to see “Magic” Johnson play basketball again. We did not know enough about HIV then to think that it was anything but a death sentence. This produced tears as well.

I am happy to say that Earvin is a very successful business man now. He always wanted to be a business man and be like his businessman idol in Lansing by the name of Joel Ferguson. Earvin continues to make everyone’s life around him better.

Bruce Springsteen was recently on the Howard Stern Show and stated that he had the greatest job in the world. Bruce said that he got “very wealthy” doing what he would have done for free as his job. The same can be said about Earvin Johnson while he was playing basketball.

Thank you Earvin!

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