Commentary

Magic transcends sports fame

Updated: September 23, 2013, 8:55 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Magic JohnsonPaul Spinelli/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson says he's trying to give people the tools to succeed.

It took Haman Cross to make him cry.

"God is so good," is all Magic Johnson could say.

Here is a man who has been through and done more than four people's lives put together. He's looking at an 18-year-old kid making an attempt to redirect his life, and Johnson sees what we see every day but tend to ignore: a young black kid trying to do something with the life he has ahead of him.

Not to say that Earvin Johnson doesn't cry. He does. But always with reason. Compassion has a way of defining who he is. He tends to be touched by people as much as he's made a living touching others' lives. Still, it takes a lot -- or something very special -- to make him cry.

Magic Johnson is no longer a basketball player. Calling him a Hall of Famer or one of the greatest ballplayers ever is like calling the Bible a book, Bill Gates an inventor or Oprah a television host. Magic has quietly become so much more than just that.

Of all of the business ventures Johnson, who is an ESPN analyst, has embarked on in the past 20 years (ventures that include ownership in everything from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Starbucks to movie theater chains to hotel chains to the Aspire television network), Johnson's "Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy" urban school initiative may be the one that no one saw coming. Yet, it's the one he wants mentioned first in his obit.

It's something that Johnson is very direct, specific and open about. It is where he lets his true conscience be his guide. It's a former professional athlete "leveraging power" in a way that has never been done before.

Other athletes have supported schools, but these are geared to give students a second chance to earn a diploma -- not just a GED -- and help them plan for their next step in education, either vocational or college. A bridge to their future.  

On the day we sat down, Johnson opened up the 17th of the 40 alternative high schools he and his team plan to establish by year's end. The Magic Johnson Bridgescape academies currently are spread across six states with a total enrollment of 1,675. During the 2011-2012 academic year, 104 students graduated from the academy. Class sizes are small, with teachers and instructors on site. Online classes are also available. Plus, mentoring and counseling. Johnson clearly understands all students don't fall into the stereotypical, monolithic way of learning. He believes school is for everybody and that every child deserves an education, but he knows learning styles aren't universal.

"I'm passionate about what I do," Johnson told everyone at the news conference at the opening of Bridgescape Academy in Chicago. "And everything I do is always in urban America because I have to put my people to work and I have to help educate them."

Necessary. Unapologetic. Magic.


Jackson: Why you?

Magic: I don't know man. I don't know.

Jackson: Do you ever sit back and think about that?

Magic: Yeah, I do and I can't come up with the answer.

Jackson: You told the kid that introduced you [Cross] that you are going to take care of his college education. Strictly based on the promise you saw in him. I've always said that one of the things that stops us as black people from often reaching our full potential is the weight of finding out ways to finance a college education. Because one of the things that is always on most of our minds while we are in college is, "How am I going to pay for this?" I've always believed if we could ever go to school and not have to worry or think about that ...

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird and Magic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson uses the doors opened to him through sports to enlighten and help at-risk teens.

Magic: You are absolutely right. There's no telling what we could do. See, I've broken down every problem, every layer. After they've done the work, after they've gotten the grades, [students] are looking around like, "OK. I did everything you told me to do! But, I don't have the money to go to college. I got the grades, [I've proved] that I'm smart enough ..." So I said, "We gotta start sending people to college."

So right now I have 150 students on scholarship. Today, this kid became 152 because yesterday I gave a student one down in Tampa, he made 151. And I'm-a keep going.

Jackson: But watch what happens! Watch what happens to those kids now that they don't have to worry about the money aspect. Let's see what happens to them in the classroom, what happens to them after that.

Magic: They're going to excel. He's going to excel. And they'll set the tone for the other students. They're going to be like, "What?!? This can happen for me now." That's what I want. That's my plan. This is my calling. Man ... This is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is natural for me. For a lot of people, I think this is unnatural.

Jackson: Which is why I asked "Why you?" Not saying that you are the only one doing it but you are one of the only ones. I look around and ask, Why aren't more [of us] doing this?

Magic: And [we all] come from the same neighborhood and somebody helped them. I keep telling these athletes and entertainers, "Somebody helped you!" I tell them, "You gotta be here. You gotta be doing [things like] this." So I'm hoping that somebody jumps on board, that more jump on board. Because, we can change our own community. Us! Nobody else. There are enough of us doing well, doing something. You just can't send a check, or you just can't not show up or send somebody else, a manager or agent. I hate that when people do that. Man ... look (sigh), let's change subjects (laugh) because we can talk about [these problems] for a long time.

Jackson: What role did basketball play in you being where you are right now? In the whole life scheme of this? I ask because I've always believed that sports can be conduit to make all types of changes in life. People tend to look at sports for what it is on the surface, but they miss the entire value that sports can have.

Magic: First of all, it's a door opener, No. 1. No. 2, it provides a platform. No. 3, it allows you an audience that you normally, probably couldn't get anywhere else. From that you have to say, "OK, this gave me a chance to make some money, to become somebody, somebody that my people -- because we are so into sports and entertainment -- look up to. Now what am I going to do with it?" So I decided I'm going to build businesses in our community, I decided that I was going to do something with it. A lot of people wanna just run, you know. They want the material things. When you see me you don't see any of that. When they see me they see a real cat.

So when I talk and I tell them that when they drive that car off the lot it depreciates. It loses value. I start teaching. When I go into these public schools, I teach. And they say, "Man, I didn't know. What?!?" So, to me, I have to be a teacher, an educator and yet also, I'm a business owner. So I can come in any room and be effective and [my] track record ... Look, yesterday I was talking to our students and I asked them, Why do you think I was the only one? The only black man outside of Starbucks that owned a Starbucks? Here I am a black man from the ghetto, from the ghetto ... and they were like, "What?!?" Because they know me as a basketball player but they really don't know my past. And I said. "See, because I got an education and when I got some money I knew what to do with it." I didn't just buy 100 cars or run with 100 dudes.

Jackson: Then why don't more of these athletes and entertainers look at or to you as the example?

Magic: That's the ...

Jackson: 100 million dollar question ...

Magic: See, you answered your own question. It's going to take time. You and I sitting down and even talking about this, can hopefully educate some of them. Look, they don't understand one day it will be over. It'll be over, the cheers are going to stop. I ask: "What are you gonna do then?"


Reflecting on Magic Johnson's efforts made me begin thinking about an interesting comparison. 

It started with a conversation between Common (actor, author, poet, legendary MC, etc.) and me. Outside of playing Elam Ferguson on "Hell On Wheels" and working on another music project/album with his original producing partner No I.D., Common is working with Magic in Chicago to help launch his "Friends Of Magic" program and to get Bridgescape off the ground. After he spoke to the press and students, he and I began speaking truth to power. About the "value" of Magic Johnson. What he means, not what he's worth.

"He's really this generation's Muhammad Ali," I said to Common. "Different personality but same mission to make black people feel better and unashamed about who we are and what we can achieve."

"Damn, I never looked at it like that," Common said. "I think he is."


Jackson: If I said to you that I thought you were this generation's Muhammad Ali (long pause) ... how does that register to you?

Magic: (Laughs) Um ... Well ...

Jackson: Before you answer, let me explain: I'm talking Ali in a different way. To me you continue to do things to make black and brown people feel good about themselves. And essentially that's what Ali did. For him it wasn't about breaking barriers like Jackie Robinson or Althea Gibson, it was about him saying, "I'm going to take an entire race of people and make them feel unashamed of being black, not ashamed about being who we are, and I'm going to do it in my own way." That to me was just as important as what Dr. King was doing and what Jackie [Robinson] and Larry Doby did.

Magic: Right, right. There you go ...

Jackson: What he did built our self-esteem. What he did was something that stayed with us our entire lifetime. It wasn't something that we can sit back and say it would have eventually happened. And he didn't apologize for it. Outside of saying that he was "The Greatest," he instilled a sense of pride in our race that showed us that we didn't have to apologize for being who and what we were. So, if I say to you, that you are this generation's Muhammad Ali, do you get what I'm saying?

Magic: I get what you are saying. And I appreciate that because that's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to bring pride to our community and also make sure the things that are missing and the things are affecting our community, that are needed and necessary, I bring. Right now, [this school project] is so important. Our race is dropping out at an alarming rate, more than any other race in this country. For me to say this is what I want to do, put our people back in school, put our people to work in all of my businesses, so I understand what you are saying. Ali meant so much to everybody, but especially to me, because of just what you said. I looked up to him. I listened to his fights on radio with my dad, I saw the work he did in Africa and in other places and all through neighborhoods like this. So I'm just trying to do my part. I love speaking up for our people and trying to help them and help us go to the next level.

Jackson: At the end of the day are you trying to save lives?

Magic: Oh yeah. But you have to give 'em tools to do that. See, it's one thing to talk about saving lives, but if you don't give us tools then we can't save our [own] lives. So it's about bringing the tools. So what is this [school] doing?

(Speaking in a kid's voice) "Now I got the diploma, now I feel good about myself." That's a tool. So now the young man says, "Oh, man, I'm about to go to college. I got a second chance." Education is a tool. That diploma is a tool. A job is a tool, it makes you feel good about yourself. In my position, I just can't speak about it, I, personally, have to be about it. We got a lot of people talking about what we need to be doing, but after that speech what are they doing? What happens after that? Our people are like, "How am I going to get a job?" Or "Where am I going to get a job?" People need tools to help them and I'm trying to give them the tools and not just making the speeches.

Jackson: This where God comes into the conversation.

Magic: Exactly. He just took me and said, "Look, you have to show our people, your people, the way." And that's what I'm doing. And you have to do it with a plan, with a strategy and it can't be lip service. I'm going to be in Detroit tomorrow, doing the same thing. Opening up a school. I was just in Tampa yesterday. I love what I do and I try to bring that passion every day. I bring the love for my people. Just like up there, all emotional. This is what it's all about. Because they know a phony. They know who's real and who is not. Who's authentic. So for me, I'm authentic. I don't send anybody. I don't send a team member. I don't just come through and wave. I'm physically here myself.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.