By Mark Miller
Even at age 55 and more than two decades removed from his stellar basketball career, Earvin “Magic” Johnson still displays the radiant smile and positive attitude that has been his lifelong trademark.
The man who helped change an entire sport in the 1970s and 80s and since has become perhaps the most powerful African-American businessman in the world was speaking to a group of bowling center owners and bowling industry leaders late one June morning in Las Vegas. Through anecdotes and stories, the audience quickly learned how Johnson and his Magic Johnson Enterprises have proven to be as successful as he was in collegiate and professional basketball.
“What he believes is what he does and what he consistently does is make a difference in the lives of others,” said Brunswick Chief Executive Officer Brent Perrier in introducing Johnson at International Bowl Expo.
Johnson’s strong belief in putting black America to work is backed by his more than 55,000 employees. His Magic Johnson Foundation has built 18 technology centers, has 150 students on scholarship, and conducts job and health fairs.
“Mindset, practice, attitude, and work ethic can change a lot of situations especially in sports and in business,” he said.
His athletic legacy started in Lansing, Mich., where he acquired his nickname at age 15. He won the state high school championship his senior year and the 1979 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship game, as a Michigan State University sophomore against Larry Bird and Indiana State University of course.
He helped the Los Angeles Lakers win five titles in nine trips to the National Basketball Association Finals in 12 years and was a member of the famed Dream Team that won the 1992 Olympic gold medal. It was his last feat on the basketball court after retiring due to testing positive for HIV.
Wanting to invest the money earned from the Lakers in business, he quickly learned minorities were the No. 1 group of people going to the movies but had no theatres in their immediate communities. That’s when he partnered with Sony to create Magic Johnson Theatres.
“I knew what minorities wanted and I had to over-deliver to them,” he said. “If you over-deliver to the customer, you’ll get the retention that you’re looking for and they become your brand ambassadors, you don’t have to pay to market. They become the people out there marketing your business for you.”
With his theaters a quick success, he entered into a partnership with Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz to build 125 locations in urban areas. Exchanging scones for deserts like sweet potato pie and changing background music to Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and Earth, Wind and Fire, he once again hit the jackpot, selling out for a reported $27 million.
About the same time, the then Lakers executive and part owner realized the value of the team was at its all-time high and he sold those shares too. Needing a place to park his new millions of dollars, he took advantage of an opportunity two years ago to buy into the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Whoever thought a basketball guy would have a chance to get involved in baseball,” he said.
Once again, Johnson “magically” helped turned things around. Since becoming part of the Dodgers, the team has gone from 17th in the majors in attendance to No. 1 primarily by improving the fan experience. He’s trying to do the same as part owner of the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association and as an owner of the new Los Angeles FC soccer team coming in 2017.
He’s also recently bought into a life insurance company, a television network (Aspire) and a food services company that recently won the contract for both Disneyland and Disney World.
“Now Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse at both parks eat my company’s food,” he said.
Not too bad for a tall, skinny kid from Lansing, Mich.