Magic Johnson still has the touch.
Rated the greatest point guard of all time by ESPN and one of its top 50 players ever by the NBA, Johnson especially lived up to his nickname when it came to getting his Los Angeles Lakers teammates the ball.
No-look passes, spinning feeds, on the money alley-oops, he was the king of the perfect assist.
“Guys always like passers,” he told the crowd at the Central State Hall of Fame luncheon Friday at the Country Club of the North. “I used to go to Kareem (Abdul Jabbar) and say, ‘Where do you like it? Just tell me and I’m gonna put it on that spot.’
“And he’d say, ‘When I put my hand up, I want you to throw it right to my hand.’ And that’s what I’d do and he’d swing in and shoot that beautiful hook shot.”
Johnson said he did the same with Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes, James Worthy and Byron Scott during the early days of his career.
But Friday the 59-year-old Hall of Famer dished off one of his greatest assists ever.
Instead of Kareem, he targeted CSU president Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond and her school.
He was talking about the importance of HBCUs (Historically Back Colleges and Universities) and how – after meeting with Jackson-Hammond and her husband in Los Angeles a while back and visiting the CSU campus a couple of times in recent years and meeting students – he believed in the school.
And with that came the no-look, hand-off.
“So today Dr. Hammond I’m going to give you $1 million!” he said.
The stunned crowd responded with an almost -giddy “Oooooooh!” Then came whoops of joy from some of the students and a warm and sustained round of applause from everyone.
When the students began to chant “Magic! Magic! Magic!” Johnson flashed that trademark, 1000-kilowatt smile, then shrugged:
“I gotta do my part. I can’t say I’m a believer without writing a check.”
Johnson is the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, a billion dollar conglomerate that invests in malls, movie theaters, fitness centers, restaurants, entertainment shows, a TV network and scores of other entities.
He’s also a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks and the city’s new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise and said his sports ownership portfolio began when he became part owner of the Dayton Dragons 18 years ago.
Last year he also became President of Basketball Operation for the Lakers, the team with whom he won five NBA titles in his 13 years as their 6-foot-9 point guard.
Where Johnson especially has made a mark though is with his social consciousness and philanthropy. He’s made it a point to open businesses in minority communities in order to provide services and jobs to the underserved.
His Magic Johnson Foundation has, among other things, focused on HIV/AIDS.
Back in 1991 – when there was still a real stigma attached to the disease and it claimed 35,000 Americans that year — he announced he was HIV positive and said he was going to be a champion in the fight from them on. And he has been in every way imaginable, from funding research to changing perceptions.
He’s now working with former First Lady Michelle Obama on a Global Girls Alliance that helps adolescents in need.
And Central State seems to hold special favor with him.
He spoke at the school in 2012 and three years later he made a donation and was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new Student Center. Last year he became a honorary chairman of CSU’s capital campaign.
“Magic Johnson really is a part of our family,” CSU Vice President Jahan Culbreath said. “We refer to him as a CSU Believer. He has a special place in his heart for Central State.”
A nod to his parents
Johnson – who shared the dais Friday with keynote speaker, radio mogul Tom Joyner – paid special attention to the students among the 250 people in the crowd.
He encouraged them to ask questions and one of the first was how he had gone from an athlete to likely the most successful black businessman in the world.
He said it went back to his upbringing with six sisters and three brothers in Lansing, Michigan and he especially talked about his beloved parents.
He said he got his work ethic from his dad:
“He worked two jobs his whole life. He worked 30 years at General Motors and never missed a day’s work or was late. He worked there at night and he hauled people’s trash in the mornings. I had to work on the trash truck on Saturday mornings during the year and every day but Sunday during the summer.
“My job was to pick up the loose trash and he got the barrels. One time in the winter, when it was about zero degrees outside, I just grabbed what I could around some cans and got back in the truck,
“That’s when my dad came and grabbed me out of there and brought me back to the cans. Some trash was stuck in the ice and cracks, but I hadn’t bothered to try to get it out
“He said, ‘Listen, if you do this half way, you’re gonna do everything in your life half way.’
“I went and got the shovel, broke the ice and got the trash out of there and that stuck with me. Everything my father taught me in life I applied to my game and now in business. I thank God I had such a loving, caring father.
“And my mom? I have her personality. I love to save the world like her.”
Magic told how – even when times were tough for them – she cooked extra food for people in need in the neighborhood and had him go and give it out to them.
“The lessons of my parents have carried me through life,” he said.
His first foray into sports ownership came when he listened to Peter Guber, Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, and they partnered on the launch of the Dayton Dragons.
“Peter and I came and talked to the city council and they built a beautiful stadium,” he said. “I tell you it’s just beautiful.
“I just want to thank everybody in Dayton – the mayor, the city council and especially the people who live there. No matter what our record was, they came for the experience and we ended up breaking the old sell-out record of the Portland Trail Blazers
“Now Peter and I own the Dodgers together and an esports franchise called Team Liquid. We have about five or six businesses together. And while he owns the Golden State Warriors, I’m now with the Lakers”.
And his coup with them in the offseason was signing LeBron James to a four- year, $153.5 million contract, a move he hopes will help returns the Lakers to glory after an uncharacteristic five straight years out of the playoffs.
“LeBron James is the biggest athlete in the world right now, in terms of on the court, in the locker room as a leader and making an impact in the the community,” he said. “You very rarely get to see a man who can do all those things very well. He’s a once-in-a-generation athlete.”
Actually LeBron and Magic are a lot alike.
And while Magic is 26 years older, he’s never been busier.
He said he gets up every morning around 4 a.m., prays, works out and then heads to the office. He admits he’s a workaholic.
Before coming to Beavercreek, he was in Las Vegas for a Wednesday night Lakers’ preseason game and then had made a quick trip to L.A, where his Dodgers are in the National League Championship Series with Milwaukee.
Saturday he spoke in San Francisco. Sunday night he’s scheduled to fly back out of Los Angeles for a Monday speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan and another Tuesday in Washington, D.C..
He said he tries to reserve many Friday and Saturday nights for “date night” with his wife, Cookie, and Sunday mornings he said he takes her to church.
“If you’re smart,” he grinned, “you keep your wife happy.”
One of the students asked Magic about some of his biggest challenges as a Lakers rookie in 1980.
He talked about getting the veterans to accept him, adjusting to the NBA after dominating at Michigan State and then he spoke about the NBA Finals against Philadelphia.
Abdul Jabbar had been hurt in game five and was out for game six in the Spectrum. The visiting Lakers were suddenly 20 point underdogs he said, but he went to each of his teammates and told them they would be OK.
Lakers coach Paul Westhead had Magic play all five positions in that game and he finished with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. The victory gave the Lakers the NBA crown and Magic was named the championship MVP.
Friday in Beavercreek he played all five positions, as well:
Entrepreneur, mentor, preacher, cheerleader, storyteller.
Earlier in the day, he stressed to me the importance of an HBCU like Central State:
“Everybody’s not able to go to the University of Dayton, Ohio State, Ohio University and those places so we have to make sure all kids gave an opportunity not just to get a quality education, but be among their peers and have a great experience.”
Friday, two CSU students who especially reveled in the experience of this homecoming weekend were the school‘s homecoming king Kalyn Payne and the queen Amber Turnbull, both of whom were wearing their crowns.
Johnson asked them to stand for round of applause and then he called them to the podium so they could pose for a photo they could send to their parents.
As Payne took Turnbull’s arm in his and made the slow journey forward, Magic had some fun:
“Oh, look sat him, he’s struttin’! Nothin’ like being THE man on campus!”
Payne smiled, but he – like everyone else in the crowd – knew the guy wearing the real crown at CSU this day was Magic Johnson.