Magic Johnson's incredible journey
From the day he arrived in 1979, Magic's impact on L.A. transcended basketball
LOS ANGELES -- I spoke on the phone with Peter O'Malley three days ago, with Tommy Lasorda two days ago, with Ned Colletti a day ago. We talked baseball, we talked Dodgers, we addressed other Los Angeles angles. And then the big thing of the day would come to the surface, like James Cameron from the ocean floor: So, who's going to buy the ballclub? If one knew for a fact, he didn't let on.I spoke with Tommy Davis, with Sweet Lou Johnson, with Steve Yeager, with Jeff Torborg, the old blue-man group. Invariably, I would wonder aloud, or one of those fine men would: So, who's going to buy the team? I touched base with Vin Scully, a.k.a. The Voice, and with Rick Monday, with Jaime Jarrin, the gents who talk Dodgers baseball for a living. So, who's the new owner going to be? I sat with Charley Steiner in a booth at Nate & Al's and it popped up repeatedly, like a Chicago Cub in October with the bases loaded: So, who will Frank McCourt's new closer be?
I spent mornings reading the writers, hearing the TV-radio types, speculating, calculating, reporting which wannabe buyers had been put on waivers: Torre, Garvey, Hershiser, Claire, Cuban, O'Malley, etc., etc. Man, a lot of folks with familiar names sure did seem to treasure this team. It was like eBay come to life. How high would they go? How much would it take? Time is running out. Buy It Now!
I heard Colletti, a heck of a guy, a damn smart baseball executive, knocked for not buying This Guy and That Guy when they became available, as if his hands weren't tied by the situation, as if he weren't obliged to play moneyball, as if he hadn't put a playoff team on the field when he did have the resources behind him. I knew he discreetly had dangled $80 million for three years before Prince Fielder, a pretty generous short-term investment if you ask me, but it didn't matter because Prince had bigger fish to fry and McCourt couldn't afford a bigger splash, so Colletti caught nothing but the flak. At least until, you know, Somebody Buys the Team.Earvin Johnson's name came up. And stayed there. And stayed there. Others took a knee like Tebow, counted their blessings and left the field of play till another day. Magic stayed and played. Didn't shock me a bit. "It's winnin' time," he used to say, when he was a lad from Lansing new to L.A., becoming acquainted with the weird ways West Coast rich folks like Jack Kent Cooke conducted business. And now? Well, not only was Magic Johnson seen as a winner, as a businessman, as a guy who probably could be mayor or governor if he chose to be, but he was the "L.A. guy" as opposed to "out-of-towners," frequently referred to this way by L.A. guys who originally came from some town back East.
I met Earvin when he was, oh, 20, I guess -- he's 52 now? Come on, can't be -- when I went to his old high school and attended a night held in his honor, Michigan State having just won a national championship and its star sophomore's future up for grabs. I met his mom in the stands and found his old prep coach in the hall. Each said yes, he loves school, but there are new places he wants to be, new things he wants to try.
So soon to California he came and everybody got to know him. Some didn't know that Magic's friends didn't call him Magic and didn't call him Earvin; no, they called him Buck and Junior and E.J., and the kid seemed to accumulate nicknames even faster than he accumulated trophies. He had smarts and his basketball IQ was off the charts, but, as is often the way, when he went into management on the court, tried coaching the team, the team didn't do so hot. Magic was his sobriquet, not his profession.What did he do? Well, he did something else. He bought properties, created franchises, launched projects. He became a crusader for causes, including for the one that caused his own health to go south. He went from object of desire to subject of scandal for a while, exposed as a serial lover of women, not quite on a Wilt Chamberlain level but evidently not very far from it. But such labels didn't stick to him, didn't give him a case of public leprosy, anymore than they did in the '90s to a President of the United States or a number of other philandering souls who continued to go to work and get things done. Magic Johnson lived long and prospered. When he became HIV-positive, we weren't positive that he would. But he did. He fooled us. He endured. He saw the game of his life go into overtime. There would be time to find other goals, take other shots, win at something else. But what? Politics? Mmmm, maybe, but there was so much left-right, left-right, a point man hardly knows which way to maneuver anymore without somebody screaming at him to go the other way. Entertainment? Hmmm, like what? Sponsoring concerts? Or backing movies, wondering if your next one will be a "Hunger Games" or a box office bomb?
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Baseball baseballWell, that DID have possibilities, didn't it? A locally beloved team, super-popular for 50-plus years but in need of a fresh start. A pro sports franchise, valuable enough to require billion-dollar bids but temporarily turned into The 99-Cent Store by landlords who had frankly cheapened it. OK, I'll play, Magic Johnson said. Put me in. He needed a wing man, so he found one. Then a strong man to dominate by the net. Then a power player on the perimeter. Kasten, Walter and Guber checked in at the scorer's table. The competition would be rich and deep. But with each round of elimination, Johnson's team still seemed a capital-D Dream. I'll be doggoned (a lyric some of us Motown lovers loved to sing) if it wasn't. Magic Johnson's side won. You're surprised? You never learn, do you? The man wins. If the checks don't bounce like a new Rawlings, if and when Major League Baseball signs off, then "the Magic Johnson group" will own the Los Angeles Dodgers, lock, stock and jocks. Kasten will call the shots, Walter will do a lot of hand-checks, Guber will have his say, but Johnson's the one who becomes the face of Dodgers baseball with the billion-dollar smile. Make that 2 billion. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune sports columnist.