Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. (born August 14, 1959) is a retired American professional basketball player who played point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association (NBA). After winning championships in high school and college, Johnson was selected first overall in the 1979 NBA Draft by the Lakers. He won a championship and an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in his rookie season, and won four more championships with the Lakers during the 1980s. Johnson retired abruptly in 1991 after announcing that he had contracted HIV, but returned to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, winning the All-Star MVP Award. After protests from his fellow players, he retired again for four years, but returned in 1996, at age 36, to play 32 games for the Lakers before retiring for the third and final time.
Johnson’s career achievements include three NBA MVP Awards, nine NBA Finals appearances, twelve All-Star games, and ten All-NBA First and Second Team nominations. He led the league in regular-season assists four times, and is the NBA’s all-time leader in average assists per game, at 11.2. Johnson was a member of the “Dream Team“, the U.S. basketball team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1992. After leaving the NBA in 1992, Johnson formed the Magic Johnson All-Stars, a barnstorming team that travelled around the world playing exhibition games.
Johnson was honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996, and enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. He was rated the greatest NBA point guard of all time by ESPN in 2007. His friendship and rivalry with Boston Celtics star Larry Bird, whom he faced in the 1979 NCAA finals and three NBA championship series, were well documented. Since his retirement, Johnson has been an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex, as well as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, broadcaster and motivational speaker. Johnson was a part-owner of the Lakers for several years, and is part of a group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012.
Earvin Johnson Jr. was born in Lansing, Michigan to Earvin Sr., a General Motors assembly worker, and Christine, a school custodian. Johnson grew up in Lansing, and came to love basketball as a youngster, idolizing players such as Earl Monroe and Marques Haynes, and practicing “all day.”
Johnson was first dubbed “Magic” as a 15-year-old sophomore playing for Lansing’s Everett High School, when he recorded a triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. After the game, Fred Stabley Jr., a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal, gave him the moniker despite the belief of Johnson’s mother, a Christian, that the name was sacrilegious.
In his final high school season, Johnson led Lansing Everett to a 27–1 win–loss record while averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per game, and took his team to an overtime victory in the state championship game. Johnson dedicated the championship victory to his best friend Reggie Chastine, who was killed in a car accident the previous summer. He gave Chastine much of the credit for his development as a basketball player and as a person,  saying years later, “I doubted myself back then.” Upon learning of Chastine’s death, Magic ran from his home, crying uncontrollably. Johnson, who finished his high school career with two All-State selections, was considered at the time to be the best high school player evers to come out of Michigan and was also named to the 1977 McDonald’s All-American team.
Michigan State University
Although Johnson was recruited by several top-ranked colleges such as Indiana and UCLA, he decided to play close to home. His college decision came down to the University of Michigan and Michigan State University in East Lansing. He ultimately decided to attend Michigan State when its coach Jud Heathcote told him he could play the point guard position. The talent already on Michigan State’s roster also drew him to the program.
Johnson did not initially aspire to play professionally, focusing instead on his communication studies major and on his desire to become a television commentator. Playing with future NBA draftees Greg Kelser, Jay Vincent and Mike Brkovich, Johnson averaged 17.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game as a freshman, and led the Spartans to a 25–5 record, the Big Ten Conference title, and a berth in the 1978 NCAA Tournament. The Spartans reached the Elite Eight, but lost narrowly to eventual national champion Kentucky.
During the 1978–79 season, Michigan State again qualified for the NCAA Tournament, where they advanced to the championship game and faced Indiana State University, which was led by senior Larry Bird. In what was the most-watched college basketball game ever, Michigan State defeated Indiana State 75–64, and Johnson was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. After two years in college, during which he averaged 17.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, Johnson was drafted in the 1979 NBA Draft. After the 1994-95 season, Heathcote stepped down as coach of the Spartans, and on June 8, 1995, Johnson returned to the Breslin Center to play in the Jud Heathcote All-Star Tribute Game. He led all scorers with 39 points.
Rookie season in the NBA (1979–80)
Johnson was drafted first overall in 1979 by the Los Angeles Lakers. Johnson said that what was “most amazing” about joining the Lakers was the chance to play alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the team’s 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m) center who became the leading scorer in NBA history. Despite Abdul-Jabbar’s dominance, he had failed to win a championship with the Lakers, and Johnson was expected to help them achieve that goal. Johnson averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game for the season, was selected to the NBA All-Rookie Team, and was named an NBA All-Star Game starter.
The Lakers compiled a 60–22 record in the regular season and reached the 1980 NBA Finals, in which they faced the Philadelphia 76ers, who were led by forward Julius Erving. The Lakers took a 3–2 lead in the series, but Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 33 points a game in the series, sprained his ankle in Game 5 and could not play in Game 6. Paul Westhead decided to start Johnson at center in Game 6; Johnson recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123–107 win, while playing guard, forward, and center at different times during the game. Johnson became the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award, and his clutch performance is still regarded as one of the finest in NBA history. He also became one of four players to win NCAA and NBA championships in consecutive years.
Ups and downs (1980–83)
Early in the 1980–81 season, Johnson was sidelined after he suffered torn cartilage in his left knee. He missed 45 games, and said that his rehabilitation was the “most down” he had ever felt. Johnson returned before the start of the 1981 playoffs, but the Lakers’ then-assistant and future head coach Pat Riley later said Johnson’s much-anticipated return made the Lakers a “divided team”. The 54-win Lakers faced the 40–42 Houston Rockets in the first round of playoffs, where Houston upset the Lakers 2–1 after Johnson airballed a last-second shot in Game 3.
In 1981, after the 1980–81 season, Johnson signed a 25-year, $25-million contract with the Lakers, which was the highest-paying contract in sports history up to that point. Early in the 1981–82 season, Johnson had a heated dispute with Westhead, who Johnson said made the Lakers “slow” and “predictable”. After Johnson demanded to be traded, Lakers owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead and replaced him with Riley. Although Johnson denied responsibility for Westhead’s firing, he was booed across the league, even by Lakers’ fans. However, Buss was also unhappy with the Lakers offense and had intended on firing Westhead days before the Westhead–Johnson altercation, but assistant GM Jerry West and GM Bill Sharman had convinced Buss to delay his decision. Despite his off-court troubles, Johnson averaged 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.5 assists, and a league-high 2.7 steals per game, and was voted a member of the All-NBA Second Team.
He also joined Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players to tally at least 700 points, 700 rebounds, and 700 assists in the same season. The Lakers advanced through the 1982 playoffs and faced Philadelphia for the second time in three years in the 1982 NBA Finals. After a triple-double from Johnson in Game 6, the Lakers defeated the Sixers 4–2, as Johnson won his second NBA Finals MVP award. During the championship series against the Sixers, Johnson averaged 16.2 points on .533 shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. Johnson later said that his third season was when the Lakers first became a great team, and he credited their success to Riley.
During the 1982–83 NBA season, Johnson averaged 16.8 points, 10.5 assists, and 8.6 rebounds per game and earned his first All-NBA First Team nomination. The Lakers again reached the Finals, and for a third time faced the Sixers, who featured center Moses Malone as well as Erving. With Johnson’s teammates Norm Nixon, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo all hobbled by injuries, the Lakers were swept by the Sixers, and Malone was crowned the Finals MVP. In a losing effort against Philadelphia, Johnson averaged 19.0 points on .403 shooting, 12.5 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game
Post-Olympics and later life
Before the 1992–93 NBA season, Johnson announced his intention to stage an NBA comeback. After practicing and playing in several pre-season games, he returned to retirement before the start of the regular season, citing controversy over his return sparked by opposition from several active players. In an August, 2011 interview Johnson said that in retrospect, he wished that he had never retired after being diagnosed with HIV, saying, “If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have retired.” Johnson said that despite the physical, highly competitive practices and scrimmages leading up to the 1992 Olympics, some of those same teammates still expressed concerns about his return to the NBA. He said that he retired because he “didn’t want to hurt the game.”
During his retirement, Johnson has written a book on safer sex, run several businesses, worked for NBC as a commentator, and toured Asia, Australia and New Zealand with a basketball team of former college and NBA players. In 1985, Johnson created “A Midsummer Night’s Magic”, a yearly charity event which included an celebrity basketball game and a black tie dinner. The proceeds went to the United Negro College Fund, and Johnson held this event for twenty years, ending in 2005. “A Midsummer Night’s Magic” eventually came under the umbrella of the Magic Johnson Foundation, which he founded in 1991. The 1992 event, which was the first one held after Johnson’s appearance in the 1992 Olympics, raised over $1.3 million for UNCF. Magic Johnson joined Shaquille O’Neal and celebrity coach Spike Lee to lead the blue team to a 147-132 victory over the white team, which was coached by Arsenio Hall.
Return to the Lakers as coach and player (1994, 1996)
Johnson returned to the NBA as coach of the Lakers near the end of the 1993–94 NBA season, replacing Randy Pfund, and Bill Bertka, who served as an interim coach for two games. Johnson, who took the job at the urging of owner Jerry Buss, admitted “I’ve always had the desire (to coach) in the back of my mind.” He insisted that his health was not an issue, while downplaying questions about returning as a player, saying, “I’m retired. Let’s leave it at that.” Amid speculation from general manager Jerry West that he may only coach until the end of the season, Johnson took over a team that had a 28-38 record, and won his first game as head coach, a 110-101 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. He was coaching a team that had five of his former teammates on the roster: Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Tony Smith, Kurt Rambis, James Worthy, who would retire after the season, and Michael Cooper, who was brought in as an assistant. Johnson, who still had a guaranteed player contract that would pay him $14.6 million during the 1994–95 NBA season, signed a separate contract to coach the team that had no compensation. The Lakers played well initially, winning five of their first six games under Johnson, but after losing the next five games, Johnson announced that he was resigning as coach after the season. The Lakers finished the season on a ten game losing streak, and Johnson’s final record as a head coach was 5-11. Stating that it was never his dream to coach, he chose instead to purchase a 5% share of the team in June 1994.
At the age of 36, Johnson attempted another comeback as a player when he re-joined the Lakers during the 1995–96 NBA season. During his retirement, Johnson began intense workouts to help his fight against HIV, raising his bench press from 135 to 300 pounds, and increasing his weight to 255 pounds. He officially returned to the team on January 29, 1996, and played his first game the following day against the Golden State Warriors. Coming off the bench, Johnson had 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists to help the Lakers to a 128-118 victory. On February 14, Johnson recorded the final triple-double of his career, when he scored 15 points, along with 10 rebounds and 13 assists in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks. Playing power forward, he averaged 14.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game in 32 games, and finished tied for 12th place with Charles Barkley in voting for the MVP Award. The Lakers had a record of 22-10 in the games Johnson played, and he considered his final comeback “a success.” While Johnson played well in 1996, there were struggles both on and off the court. Cedric Ceballos, upset over a reduction in his playing time after Magic Johnson’s arrival, left the team for several days. He missed two games and was stripped of his title as team captain. Nick Van Exel received a seven game suspension for bumping referee Ron Garretson during a game on April 9. Johnson was publicly critical of Van Exel, saying his actions were “inexcusable.” Ironically Johnson was himself suspended five days later, when he bumped referee Scott Foster, missing three games.
He also missed several games due to a calf injury. Despite these difficulties, the Lakers finished with a record of 53–29 and fourth seed in the NBA Playoffs. Although they were facing the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets, the Lakers had home court advantage in the five-game series. The Lakers played poorly in a Game 1 loss, prompting Johnson to express frustration with his role in coach Del Harris‘ offense. Johnson led the way to a Game 2 victory with 26 points, but averaged only 7.5 points per game for the remainder of the series, which the Rockets won three games to one.
After the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, Johnson initially expressed a desire to return to the team for the 1996-97 NBA season, but he also talked about joining another team as a free agent, hoping to see more playing time at point guard instead of power forward. A few days later Johnson changed his mind and retired permanently, saying, “I am going out on my terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992.”
Magic Johnson All-Stars
Determined to play competitive basketball despite being out of the NBA, Johnson formed the Magic Johnson All-Stars, a barnstorming team composed of former NBA and college players. In 1994 Johnson joined with former pros Reggie Theus, John Long, Earl Cureton, and Lester Conner, as his team played games in Israel, South America, Europe, New Zealand, and Japan. They also toured the United States, playing five games against teams from the CBA. In the final game of the CBA series, Magic Johnson had 30 points, 17 rebounds, and 13 assists, leading the All-Stars to a 126-121 victory over the Oklahoma City Cavalry. By the time he returned to the Lakers in 1996, the Magic Johnson All-Stars had amassed a record of 55-0, and Johnson was earning as much as $365,000 per game. Johnson played with the team frequently over the next several years, with possibly the most memorable game occurring in November, 2001. Magic, at the age of 42, played with the All-Stars against his alma mater, Michigan State. Although he played in a celebrity game to honor coach Jud Heathcoate in 1995, this was Johnson’s first meaningful game played in his hometown of Lansing in 22 years. Playing in front of a sold out arena, Johnson had a triple-double and played the entire game, but his all-star team lost to the Spartans by two points. Johnson’s half court shot at the buzzer would have won the game, but it fell short. On November 1, 2002 Johnson returned to play a second exhibition game against Michigan State. Playing with the Canberra Cannons of Australia’s National Basketball League instead of his usual group of players, Johnson’s team defeated the Spartans 104-85, as he scored 12 points, with 10 assists and 10 rebounds..