Five minutes with Magic Johnson: NBA legend talks "Magic/Bird," money, athletes and media images

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 4/19/2012, 5:29 p.m.

Sitting next to Magic Johnson in the balcony seats at the Longacre Theater, you can tell he's a bit tired from being everywhere at once. With businesses to run and foundations to oversee, he could easily be grouchy or terse to any media.

But that's not Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

Keeping a smile that - along with his basketball skills - made him a household name in the 1980s, Johnson engaged in several one-on-one interviews with the media promoting the new Broadway play "Magic/Bird" about his rivalry and friendship with Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird that premiered at Longacre this Wednesday. Produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, "Magic/Bird" wasn't initially something Johnson was into, but he was persuaded quickly.

"When you think about both of them, they produced 'Lombardi' and so when they approached me about doing the 'Magic/Bird' thing, I was like let me come see 'Lombardi,'" said Johnson when speaking with the AmNews. "I went and saw it and was impressed and I said 'Ok, we can talk about it.' And they convinced me and then I told them now I have to work on Larry. And I told Larry that I thought this was the legacy part of our career and this is about how those who saw us play can recapture a moment or bring their sons or daughters to this and show them that these are my two heroes, because they have their own heroes today."

The play's already gone through 20 different trial runs with good results, according to Johnson. He also said that men are coming out that have never been to the theater before so the wives are happy. "Kids are coming to the show, which has been amazing," he said.

With this play, HBO's recent documentary about Johnson and Bird and ESPN's "The Announcement" documentary marking the 20th anniversary of Johnson's HIV news conference, Johnson's found it a bit overwhelming to know that his actions have touched many lives. But he understands why.

"It's still blowing me away that it's happening like this," Johnson said. "All of it comes together. And then I've been successful off the court. And then you throw HIV in there and dealing with that for 20 years. So I think that people are saying 'here's a guy who didn't give up, who continues to win not only in life but on the basketball court, but who was also forthright and came out and said I'm living with HIV.' I've never shied away from it. And people are still captivated by my story."

Many have pointed to Johnson's story as the ideal for how athletes should handle their lives after basketball knowing they can't shoot jumpers forever. But with players going into debt and going bankrupt because of bad business decisions, back child support or other issues, it seems like they're not taking heed of Johnson's example. He had some advice for athletes on how to transition to life off court and how to deal with their current lives as a professional athlete.

"You gotta get a great money manager and accountant and then you gotta take the ego out of it and say I don't know business so let me get with a mentor," stated Johnson. "'Let me get with someone who knows business so they can help me understand business.' And then stop living above their means and spending more than they make."

"Understand that you're gonna retire a young man," continued Johnson. "We all think we're going to play forever, but it doesn't happen like that. It's a short career and you must understand that when you come out, you're either gonna be thirty-something or forty-something. And then you got the rest of your life. So if you don't take care of this money, you're not gonna be able to survive the next 20, 30 years that you're out of basketball."

"I wanted to make sure that I could affect change in urban America," said Johnson. "And where I grew up and put people of color to work and do it in my own community. And sure enough it's turned out to be great."

Johnson's success off the court has come courtesy of the Magic Johnson Foundation, his chain of movie theaters and various other businesses. Johnson's next stop on his world domination tour: television. Johnson will launch a television network through Comcast that will be targeted to Blacks. Johnson spoke about the importance of Black people controlling their own images in the media.

"It's very important because of the fact that we have no images if you think about most cable," Johnson said. "(At) most networks, it's not happening for us and there's not enough shows. And now you put the creative minority community to work, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. I'm very happy that we'll be in control of that. The outpour has been amazing. The directors the producers, everyone's been calling with shows, with content. So it's gonna be great."