Magic: The Life of Earvin “Magic” Johnson

Image of Magic: The Life of Earvin “Magic” Johnson
Release Date: 
October 24, 2023
Celadon Books
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“what is revealed in Magic: The Life of Earvin 'Magic' Johnson is the life of an American sports hero, full of complexity, wonder, sorrow, and success.”

In the world of basketball and beyond, the name “Magic” is instantly identified as Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the modern NBA, only the names “Michael,” “Kobe,” or “Kareem” carry the same cache on a global scale. In this exhaustive and exhausting biography running over 800 pages, Roland Lazenby seeks to explain the magic of the name and the greatness of the player. In many ways, he has succeeded in the task.

This is Lazenby’s fifth biography of an NBA player, including the highly praised Michael Jordan: The Life. In addition, Lazenby has written an estimated 50 nonfiction books that span across the spectrum of American sports.

Magic is divided into three sections: The first deals with his life before the NBA and includes considerable material on his parents and ancestors. It moves through Magic’s infancy and childhood, early schooling, secondary school, and the years at Michigan State. His development as a player and a person is woven throughout. The second section recounts the bulk of his Laker years; and the third follows his life after the positive tests for the HIV virus, including the resulting fallout, and his subsequent basketball and business endeavors.

Lazenby devotes considerable attention to his parents, Earvin Sr. and Christine. From his mother, he got his smile and his warmth, an ability to put people at ease, and his charisma. From his father, he got his devotion to work and a demand for perfection. From both parents, he inherited an “indomitable spirit that stretches across generations of his family, back to his great-great-great grandfathers born in the 1830s in North Carolina.” These ancestors, says Lazenby, passed on a “sustaining strength that allowed them to endure heartbreak and failure and calamity, sometimes of an epic nature.”

From an early age, Earvin Jr.’s basketball talent was evident to all who saw him on a court. In Lansing, he found himself in a position to play against high school players when he was in junior high and against college players when he was in high school.

Magic impressed those who saw him, even those who believed that a tall player could not be a point guard and run the offense. “Under no circumstances were big men allowed to dribble.” This was a basketball axiom that reached back into the 1930s. Johnson buried that axiom.

When Magic reached high school, Lansing was in the early years of school desegregation. There was tension exacerbated by busing that sent African American students to previously all white schools. Making adjustments to this reality was difficult, and Johnson resented being taken away from his neighborhood and strongly resisted.

For the most part Lansing school officials handled the situation well, and part of the success involved the use of basketball to defuse tensions. Magic Johnson turned out to be a key figure in this process, as was Charles Tucker, an educational psychologist who would become close to the Johnson family and, ultimately, a close advisor to Magic Johnson. According to Lazenby, “Johnson’s success in many ways could best be measured . . . in the absence of racial conflict around the program, the school, and the city his senior year.”

At Michigan State, Johnson left an indelible mark on the basketball program, culminating with a NCAA Championship. National attention focused on Johnson and Larry Bird of Indiana State in the 1979 national championship game.

Although some saw Bird as a kind of White Hope, Lazenby is skeptical. When the rivalry moved to the NBA with Magic a Laker and Bird a Celtic, it brought new interest to the league. Television ratings increased, attendance grew, and the NBA prospered. Those who had predicted the death of the NBA were no longer prominent in the media.

Part Two of Magic deals with the Laker years and the growth of a dynasty. Magic Johnson became the new face of the team and of basketball. He amassed MVP trophies and All-Star appearances as the championship trophies piled up. The game itself changed under the leadership of the six-foot nine-inch guard who was surrounded by talented players, not the least of whom was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. None of this was automatic, nor without friction, but in the end Magic’s skills, personality, and leadership carried the day.

The Lakers owner, Jerry Buss, was enamored with Johnson, and the two men developed what some considered a father-son relationship. Buss’ own life as a businessman and millionaire is given considerable attention by Lazenby. Buss looms large in the history of the Lakers and the NBA. He loved the glamor of the Hollywood scene and encouraged Magic Johnson to join him. Buss’ parties became part of the legend of the Showtime Lakers. Magic Johnson’s parties were comparable and a league legend.

Lazenby conducted thousands of hours of interviews over the years and as a result the book is full of the views of Johnson’s teammates and opponents; Laker management personnel; and Johnson’s advisors, both personal and financial.

Of all of the people in Johnson’s life Lazenby considers Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly the most significant. The two met as freshmen at Michigan State, and, not long after, Johnson began to court her. Marriage would come, but not without false starts, as Johnson proposed to her several times over several years, only to break off the engagements.

Lazenby makes an interesting point about the relationship: “The sad irony, of course, would be that if . . . Johnson had been able to confront his lifestyle issues and see his way to focusing on Kelly, he might have had a far longer NBA career, might even have avoided being infected with HIV.”  

Part Three of Magic opens with Johnson’s marriage and the aftermath of the HIV positive test. In 1991, Magic announced that he was ready for marriage and once again proposed to Cookie. The wedding took place September 14,1991. Prior to it the couple had physicals and almost as an afterthought they were given HIV tests.

Within a few weeks, Johnson was informed of his positive test. The excruciating story is carefully told with all its ramifications. On November 7, a press conference was held, and Magic Johnson informed the public of the positive test and his imminent retirement from the Lakers. He was particularly concerned about his wife and the child she was carrying. Both were free of the virus.

Ultimately “Cookie” Kelly demonstrated just how much she loved him, a love that Lazenby describes as “unconditional.” He notes: “In retrospect, of the many great gifts in Johnson’s life, the love of Earlitha Kelly would rival anything else in his existence,” and her love ”would prove the most powerful and redemptive.”

Johnson emphasized to the public that he had the virus and not the disease, saying, “I plan to go on living for a long time.” He also announced that he would now be a public spokesman for the HIV virus and the practice of safe sex.

From here Lazenby follows Magic’s new life, which, despite the announcement of retirement would include more basketball as player and coach of the Lakers, a worldwide barnstorming tour of retired NBA All-Stars, being voted the MVP of the NBA All-Star game in Orlando in 1992, and as a member of the USA Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games. At times many wondered if retirement from the Lakers had been a mistake.

A decade of starts and stops with the Lakers as coach and player were mostly sad, if not a failure. He could not let go and drove himself physically. Slowly he was able to adjust to a new life and, like his NBA life, it too would be marked by considerable success in several businesses, and in is his personal life as husband, father, and grandfather.

Magic Johnson believed that God had chosen him for the great fight against AIDS. His wife referred to him as “the chosen one.” Magic explained “God has said, ’I want you to be the messenger.’” Lazenby points out that this may or may not be true, “but he was in quite the position to shove the issue front and center for the public.”

In the end what is revealed in Magic: The Life of Earvin “Magic” Johnson is the life of an American sports hero, full of complexity, wonder, sorrow, and success. Also, Lazenby offers an interesting analysis of American life and culture across several decades. What is not revealed is any strong sense of who Earvin Johnson Jr. is and what lies at the core of his being, but maybe that is not possible to do.