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Master of Illusion
Twelve years after the AIDS virus cut short his basketball career, Magic Johnson continues to amaze and baffle
Illustration by Mark Summers
In the world of magic, motion trumps sight. The conjurer uses quickness of hand—dexterity misdirection—to confuse the eye, and the judgment, of his audience.
In the world of Magic, only time stands still. He is on the run, faster than he ever was on the basketball court, building and buying, promoting and producing, selling hamburgers, brewing lattes, pumping iron, throwing parties, cheating HIV, praising God, and at 44, collecting lifetime achievement awards. Twelve years ago, everyone was talking about death. Earvin Johnson Jr. speeded up life. Prematurely retired, still jonesing for the spotlight, the former emcee of Showtime began pulling identities out of his hat like a string of trick hankies. In a span briefer than his Laker career, he made the leap from athlete to entrepreneur to philanthropist to entertainer to activist to political kingmaker to Hollywood mogul to urban savior, assembling a $500 million empire that establishes him, according to Fortune magazine, as the nation’s 33rd most powerful black executive. Some days, he wants to buy an NBA team. Some days, he wants to cure AIDS. Some days, he wants to be mayor. Or governor. “Maybe he wants to be an astronaut,” says his former agent, Lon Rosen. “Earvin’s a dreamer. He wants a little bit of everything.”
Nothing about this pace has diminished Johnson’s capacity to command affection. With his generous smile and fistful of championship rings, he remains among the most iconic figures in Los Angeles, a celebrity who embodies not just the city’s flash and pop but also its aspirations and its heart. As one acquaintance puts it, Johnson may be the only multimillionaire here “who could walk down any street, at any time, and never have to worry about getting robbed.” Yet, as dear as he is to L.A., Johnson can also be a mystery and, dare it be said, something of a spectacle. From his desultory 16-game stint as a Laker coach to his indulgent flop as host of the late-night Magic Hour, he has found it difficult to pick a single endeavor, and to master it, instead spinning and faking his way through one headline-grabbing act after another. When he had basketball to define him, he could just be Magic, big, happy, lovable number 32. But he is Earvin now, in a race against the clock, scattered and stretched impossibly thin. “Earvin wants to do everything,” says longtime Laker spokesman John Black. “And he can’t.”
When we speak of magic, it is usually in hyperbole, an expression of marvel and joy. We celebrate it not just as entertainment but as an affirmation of the unexplainable, of all that lies beyond our perception. “We are so created,” Houdini once wrote, “that without something to wonder at we should find life scarcely worth living.” Yet we know, too, that magic is, by definition, false. It is built on deception, on the secret manipulation of our senses. We do not believe in magic so much as we believe in its power to confound. We observe the practitioner, not as devotees but as a guessing committee, poised to catch him in a lapse and expose the logic behind the illusion. If magic were real, it would transport us into the supernatural, even the religious—the realm of spells and curses, omens and miracles. In ages past, the magician often swayed a society’s fortunes; he might find himself persecuted or deified, depending on whether his mystical pretensions were deemed to be for evil or for good.
When we speak of Magic, it is usually in awe but also, as we witness each new incarnation, with a measure of disbelief. One moment he might be a charmer, the next an escape artist. Or an impersonator, or a juggler, or an alchemist, or a faith healer. Like all skilled magicians, he understands his audience. We ask for more, even though we know we are being played.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THAT NAME, SO PRESUMPTUOUS, SO NAIVE. Not that identity equals destiny, but is there any way Magic Johnson could have become the oversized creation he turned into—on the court, in the boardroom, in the media, in the bedroom—if he had stayed merely Earvin?
The story of his rechristening is legend: Fred Stabley Jr., a sportswriter in Johnson’s hometown of Lansing, Michigan, decided to spice up a story by giving the young phenom a nickname. Dr. J was already taken. So was Big E. “How about if I call you Magic?” asked Stabley. “Whatever you like,” said Magic. He was 15. His parents were Southerners, from cotton fields and tobacco farms, drawn north by the stability of auto factory work. They were loving but stern, not at all thrilled to see their son turned into a showboating caricature. “Dad felt it was a guaranteed way for people to be disappointed in me, because the name was too much for any player to live up to,” Johnson wrote in his 1992 autobiography, My Life. His mother, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, had a slightly different objection. “To her, all this talk of ‘magic’ sounded like blasphemy,” he wrote. “She worried that the name would put bad ideas into my head.” To them he was and still is Junior.
Magic did not disappoint. He rarely qualified as the most physically gifted athlete on the court, but he was almost always the smartest and most unselfish, the sort who played the game—as the sports-obsessed are fond of saying—the way it was meant to be played. When he was 17, he led the Everett High School Vikings to a state championship. When he was 19, he led the Michigan State Spartans to a national championship. When he was 20, he led the Los Angeles Lakers to a world championship, the first of five he would help bring to his adopted home. The NBA loved him, loved that name, the perfect fit for a league desperate to win back fans and ratings after its calamitous, cocaine-induced spiral in the ’70s. L.A. loved him, too, loved the communal dance that winning brought this centerless city, a city that would eventually lose patience with the plodding Dodgers and come to consider itself a Laker town. Reporters loved his accessibility and eagerness to please, while headline writers loved the word play that his moniker inspired: “The Magic Act,” “The Magic Touch,” “Magic’s Kingdom,” “Could It Be Magic?” And yes, certainly, women—by the hundreds, maybe thousands—loved the idea of hooking up with the Magic Man. “Let’s face it,” Johnson confessed in his book, “‘Magic’ is a romantic, sexy name.”
Earvin was still around, pensive and sober, “the loneliest guy in town,” as he called himself. He was the homebody who carried on a 14-year, mostly long-distance courtship with his college sweetheart, Earleatha “Cookie” Kelly. But sooner or later Magic would intercede, hungry for action and adoration, and Earvin would be reduced to concocting alibis. It did not help that he was playing in Hollywood’s backyard, with all its seductions, or that he was taking instruction—indeed, at one point renting an apartment—from his cradle robber of a boss, Dr. Jerry Buss, the swingingest owner in professional sports. “If Earvin Johnson had been drafted by Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, or even New York,” Cookie wrote in her own section of the book, “we would have been married a long time ago.” They got engaged; he broke it off. They tried again, and again Johnson wandered. He used to say that he was Magic on the court and Earvin off, but as time went on, Magic’s glory swelled and Earvin’s authority waned. Writing in Esquire a decade ago, journalist Charles P. Pierce called them “two incompatible personas,” Earvin longing to be taken seriously and Magic unwilling to submit to his control. The awful truth is, of course, that Magic went too far, made Earvin sick, damaged them both. He tested positive for HIV in 1991, just two months after his wedding, just two days after his bride learned that she was carrying their first child. “I’d like to be Magic Johnson,” he told a reporter the following year, after a storm of suspicion and fear caused him to abort his NBA comeback. “But I can’t.”
That, by any conventional gauge, should have been the end of Johnson’s sybaritic alter ego. Chastened, infected, doomed to a protracted and unavoidably public death, Magic was banishing himself. If he was going to find salvation, it would have to be as Earvin. “Earvin,” he declared at the time, “is who I am.” Thus was born what Johnson has come to refer to as “my second life,” a life ostensibly more purposeful and less flamboyant, yet every bit as remarkable as the first. For not only is Earvin still alive and well, defying all expectations, but so is Magic, revived almost as soon as he was laid to rest. He is different now, repackaged and corporatized, the namesake of Magic Johnson Theaters, of Magic Johnson’s T.G.I. Fridays, of 24 Hour Fitness Magic Johnson Sports Clubs, of Magic Johnson Enterprises. It is the difference between the life of a performer and that of a mogul. If before, Johnson was selling himself—and all the excesses of a superstar—today he sells a commodity far easier to manage. “What I’ve created, what I own, is an incredible brand,” he says.
The brand is Magic. Earvin would be nothing without him.
HE COULD HAVE SAID THAT HE DID NOT KNOW HOW HE GOT it. He should have said, in retrospect, that it was nobody’s business how he did.
Instead, he protested his heterosexuality, telling anyone who would listen that he was “certain” he had contracted the AIDS virus from a woman, even if he had no idea who she might be. He made sure we knew all about the freaks and the groupies, how they competed for the NBA’s top names as if hunting big game. How they paraded around the court for him while he was playing, how they ambushed him at the Forum Club after he showered, how they wriggled their way past hotel security guards and switchboard operators, how they flooded his mail with photos and videos and, occasionally, panties. In case we failed to get the picture, he painted a more graphic version, telling us how he had scored on roofs and beaches and office desks, in elevators and airplanes, with black women, white women, Latinas and Asians, sometimes with two and three and—logistics be damned—six women at a time. From the beginning there had been other whispers, mostly of bisexual trysts mixed into the fun; when several papers cited his close friend Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons as the source, Johnson carried a grudge for years. “I’m far from being a homosexual,” he announced on The Arsenio Hall Show, eliciting woofs of approval from the studio audience. It has been said that, as a straight man, Johnson made AIDS “real” for America, proving the disease to be an equal-opportunity stalker. Overnight, he became a poster child for the affliction. If it could happen to one of our greatest sports heroes—”even me,” Johnson famously said—it could surely happen to anyone.
To the extent that it shook the heterosexual world out of its smug insularity, Johnson’s revelation was, unquestionably one of the defining moments in the battle against AIDS. Yet one thing it was not: the harbinger of a heterosexual AIDS epidemic. In 1991, there were 131 men in Los Angeles County who had developed AIDS through heterosexual contact, about 1 percent of the total cases here. By 2002, there were 715 men, still just 1.5 percent of the 46,442 people in L.A. who have been diagnosed with the disease. Women are more likely to develop heterosexually transmitted AIDS, accounting for about 3 percent of all Los Angeles County cases. Most of them, however, are believed to have been infected by secretly gay or bisexual partners, especially from within the African American and Latino communities, where homophobic attitudes have forced many such men to juggle dual lives—a phenomenon known as the Down Low. “We’re seeing transmission by gay men to other gay men, we’re seeing I.V.-drug transmission, we’re seeing male to female, and we’re seeing women to their babies,” says Michelangelo Signorile, the former editor-at-large and columnist for The Advocate, the nation’s leading gay magazine. “We just aren’t seeing the thousands and thousands and thousands of Magic Johnsons.”
In fact, nobody really knows how Magic Johnson acquired the virus. We know only how he said he acquired it. If he lied, he would not have been the first infected man to try to conceal his sexual history. If he told the truth, he continues to be, as he was 12 years ago, the rarest of HIV-related aberrations—a rich, healthy, famous, non-drug-using, heterosexual male—nothing like the true face of the disease.
HE WAS THE ONLY BASKETBALL PLAYER ON THE COURT AND yet, the odd man out. His golden jersey hung from the rafters, but a black velvet drape covered it up. Staples Center is his house; he is a Laker vice president and co-owner with a 5 percent share of the team. But on that fall morning, just before the start of last year’s NBA season, the arena was reserved for one of those gassy executive summits, an event known as the 2002 West Coast Business Leadership Conference. For $175 a seat, guests were treated to what was touted as a “Dream Team” of pundits for hire, from Ehud Barak to James A. Baker III to Sir Richard Branson to the sole Olympic gold medalist of the bunch, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “I want to tell you the things I’m doing,” he explained to the crowd, “so you won’t think, ‘Why they have Magic here? Did they bring him in for halftime entertainment?’”
As always, he was dramatically tailored, this time in a steel gray, extra-long, four-button suit that looked more P. Diddy than Brooks Brothers. He removed the microphone from the podium and began to roam, his manner intimate, colloquial, even a bit loopy. “Man, Staples Center,” he sighed. “It doesn’t seem like long ago I was wearing those shorty-shorts.” Although he later admitted to feeling a little strange about performing this routine on the Lakers floor, the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises has been spreading the gospel of urban empowerment for the better part of a decade, making the same pitch—part call to action, part self-promotion—hundreds of times every year. He is polished in ways that once seemed beyond the reach of the frenetic college sophomore who arrived here in 1979 with a mouth full of malaprops. He has learned to speak deliberately, giving his syllables time to unfurl and linger, an art he learned by watching tapes of his own interviews. With a dozen business meetings on any given day, he can carry on about P&Ls, debt to equity, and build to suit. But Johnson is ever the showman, and when he wants applause, he turns on the soul. “We teachin’ tonight,” he might say. Or “I’m rappin’ now.” Or “Oh yeah, we talkin’ ’bout the real.”
He tells every audience the same story, about his earliest flirtation with wealth. It begins in Lansing with a Mr. Eaton and a Mr. Ferguson, the two most prominent black businessmen in a mostly white town. They were transcendent figures, driving nice cars and living in big homes, unfettered by the racial barriers of the ’60s. On weekend nights, young Earvin used to clean their offices and, alone with his fantasies, dream of being the boss. He would sink into their big leather chairs, kick his feet up on their desks, and imagine a secretary on the other end of the intercom. “I would hit the button: ‘Sally, can you bring me some doughnuts and coffee?’” he recounted, the guilelessness of his ambition winning the laughter of the Staples audience. A few months later, speaking to USC’s Black Alumni Association, he changed the name: “Taisha, bring me some coffee and doughnuts, please.”
Race is a theme that binds much of Johnson’s success. With that smile—the feature for which he is so widely praised—he is white Americas ideal of a nonthreatening black man, an image integral to his canonization, alongside the ultra-pale Larry Bird, as one of the NBA’s twin saviors. As an entrepreneur, he is attempting much the same for minority communities; if he can show them to be safe and profitable environments, the corporate world might just shed its fears and follow him in. “We don’t franchise our stores, but we decided to give it a test primarily because of Earvin’s deep sense of compassion and sensitivity,” says Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbuck, which has opened 48 inner-city coffeehouses with Johnson, the company’s only outside partner. “The thing Magic has that you can’t buy is a level of trust and confidence that people have in his name and what it stands for.” It could be argued that a $3 latte is not exactly what black America is longing for, but Johnson insists that his fare is symbolic—of quality, of respect, of untapped potential. While other athletes have reaped millions in endorsements, he wants to invest in the means of production, to give the hood a greater say in its own destiny. His roster of properties grows longer each month, from theaters in L.A., Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland and Harlem to shopping centers in Milwankee, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas to condos in Brooklyn and Hollywood. He has a stake in a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper, in a minor league baseball team in Dayton, Ohio, and until he sold it a few weeks ago, in the entire 51-store Fatburger chain. He even boasts that ultimate media prize—his own reality show, Who’s Got Game?, which debuted this summer on MTV. “We’ve dominated sports and we’ve dominated entertainment, but our problem has been we’ve never been able to dominate money,” he says. “We still don’t own our share of business, and it’s killing us. It’s killing our communities.”
Most of Johnson’s businesses have been tweaked to reflect what are thought of as African American tastes, generalizations that, if spoken by a white executive, might not be considered so benign. “I told Starbucks, ‘We don’t eat the same desserts you eat,’” Johnson says. “We don’t eat scones. We don’t eat cream puffs. We gotta have pound cake, sock-it-to-me cake!” Of the concessions at his theaters he says: “We don’t just drink Coke. We drink flavors.” Of the bar at his restaurants: “We’re not beer drinkers like most of you. We like to drink X.O. and those type of things.” Of the poetry scene that has sprouted at many of his Starbucks: “We’re hangout people.” Of the failure, generally to support black enterprise: “We hate on one another.” Of the perception that some cultures are more economically self-sustaining than others: “We gotta understand why they been so successful at business. When I say them, I mean other groups of people.”
Unlike most black entrepreneurs, Johnson has had direct access to some highly accomplished members of those other groups, L.A. power brokers who worshiped the Lakers and were only too happy to give him one-on-one tutorials. Uber-agent Michael Ovitz, oil tycoon Marvin Davis, and music magnate Joe Smith all offered counsel in the early days, sometimes even from their front-row seats. “There was this one time, he was warming up before the game, and just as the buzzer was going off, Magic came over and said, ‘I need some help: How do I get into business?’” remembers Smith, a Laker season ticket holder for 42 years. “I’ve never met a guy like him and probably won’t, with all these contradictory avenues coming out of him. But that’s the nature of the man. He’s a rare bird. He’s in the business of being Magic Johnson.”
For all his altruistic inclinations, Johnson runs that business without mercy. He is often at his desk by 6 a.m., on the seventh floor of a Beverly Hills high-rise, where he employs a full-time staff of 35. They have called it, on occasion, the Magic Johnson Slave Ship. “I’m Kunta,” says Ken Lombard, president of the Johnson Development Corporation. With a background in commercial real estate, Lombard is the “jelly maker” to Johnson’s “tree shaker,” the fixer behind every deal. As a former member of the Los Angeles Fire Commission and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Commission, he also brings political savvy to the office. But he has never forgotten whose name lights up the marquee. “I knew Earvin as a basketball player, so I figured he was a nice guy” says Lombard, sharing the story of his first business meeting with Johnson, an exchange that began pleasantly enough.
Once the formalities were over, the boss showed another face. “Earvin kind of leaned over,” Lombard recalls, “and said, ‘Boy, if you mess up my money, I will fuck you up.’ True story. That’s Earvin the businessman.”
After his West Coast Business speech—which, like most of his speeches, ran long and required repeated signals to get him to relinquish the mic—Johnson moved on to a luxury suite, where Comerica, the financial conglomerate, was hosting a reception. As soon as he walked in, he spotted a guest with a camera. Are you going to take pictures for them?” he asked “Does anyone want to organize that? It’s up to you guys—individual or group, it doesn’t matter.” When the Comerica people seemed reluctant to impose, Johnson began playing cruise ship director. “We’re taking pictures if anyone wants one,” he bellowed. “Not that you have to take one, but we don’t want to miss you if you do.” For the next half hour he traded hugs and handshakes with several dozen bankers, all a foot shorter than he, making sure nobody left without feeling acknowledged. He never acted put-upon or weary; to the contrary, when Johnson is free to mingle, he is as accommodating as any pop idol has ever been, drinking in the adulation as if he wished it would never end. Somebody asked him to autograph a glossy basketball card. “Watch your hand,” he cautioned, signing it “Magic Johnson #32.” “Let that dry.”
“Make note of this,” said one of his assistants, rolling her eyes. “He does this often.”
Part of the exchange belonged to Magic, the natural-born performer, a junkie for the stage. Yet part was also the work of a more calculating identity. Magic may be content to bask in Comerica’s love, but Earvin wants its money. “We’re gonna be talking soon,” he promised on his way out.
The Escape Artist
WHEN HE FIRST JOINED THE LAKERS, he weighed in at 205. When he retired, he was 220. In a few years he was supposed to wither away Instead he ballooned, hitting what he pegs as a top weight of 285 before settling down to his current heft of 270. If it was encouraging to see him looking so robust, it was also a bit unnerving to watch such a familiar face grow that wide and round, his bulk completely out of scale with the agile, hippity-hopping guard we remember. “I got too big,” says Johnson, insisting that most of it was muscle, the result of an overzealous weight-lifting routine. Even the tailors at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame apparently misjudged him; at his induction ceremony last fall, his official blazer got caught on his shoulders and needed an extra tug to stretch around his frame.
In medical jargon, Johnson is a long-term nonprogressor, which is to say that while the AIDS virus still harks inside him, it remains dormant, having done nothing to compromise his immune system. Nobody knows if the disease must inevitably awaken—and if so, when—or if it can be managed indefinitely, much like high blood pressure or diabetes. Because of his good health, rumors have swirled that Johnson was never actually infected, or that he was cured by experimental treatments in Africa. What he has been mostly, though, is lucky, having contracted the virus just as years of AIDS research were reaching critical mass. (His personal physician, David Ho, earned Time magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year award for the development of protease inhibitors.) It helps, obviously, to have the resources to command that level of care. Johnson can pay for a private chef and devote as many hours of the day as he wants to staying fit. But he also has something money cannot buy—an attitude so optimistic, so preternaturally sunny, that he often appears to be in a permanent state of denial. Which, for Johnson, might just be another word for hope. “Somehow,” says Jerry Buss, “he seems to have made up his mind that he doesn’t have the disease.” Johnson gives much of the credit to his wife, for standing by him and reaffirming his faith, even if Cookie inadvertently made headlines a few years ago by telling Ebony magazine that he had been “definitely healed” by Jesus. As his doctors were quick to add, Johnson still had the virus; potent anti-AIDS cocktails were keeping it contained. “The medicine is doing its job, I’m doing my job, and God’s doing His job,” Johnson says now, byway of explanation.
If Johnson has been astonishing as a patient, he has worked fewer wonders as a “spokesman for the virus,” as he initially described his calling. From the start there were so many expectations of him, so many competing agendas, that, in the end, Johnson satisfied virtually none. Gay activists hailed his HIV announcement as a watershed, believing that a celebrity victim would, at last, open the funding spigots. But they also resented that it took a heterosexual to stir compassion, especially one who did little to acknowledge their years of lonely struggle. Conservatives objected to all the talk of Johnson’s courageousness, arguing that shame might be a more appropriate response for a man “defeated by his unruly sexual appetite,” as Irving Kristol put it in The Wall Street Journal. Women were not impressed by Johnson’s admission that he tried to “accommodate” as many sexual partners as possible, nor by his placement of the blame on some anonymous female carrier. Basketball writers and broadcasters, mostly older white men who revered Johnson, eagerly accepted his version of events—the alternative being too alien to their conception of sports culture. “Don’t think he got it the wrong way,” the kindly Chick Hearn warned Laker fans. NBA players, meanwhile, seemed just as eager to believe that Johnson was gay or bi; if he was, Johnson noted, that would “let them off the hook” for their own reckless exploits. “Personally, it was horrible to watch what people did to him,” says Lon Rosen, who guided Johnson through the early days of his disclosure. “He was getting Scud missiles shot at him from all over the world. It was almost as though he couldn’t do anything right. But he was able to stand up there, all six-foot-nine of him, and say, ‘Screw all of you, I’m going to find some good in this terrible thing that’s happened to me.’ And he has.”
Almost immediately, he unveiled the Magic Johnson Foundation, a charitable fund devoted to AIDS-related research and outreach. At President George Bush’s invitation, he joined the National Commission on AIDS, then resigned in protest 11 months later, accusing Bush of having “dropped the ball.” He did an HIV-awareness special for Nickelodeon called A Conversation with Magic Johnson, and he wrote a paperback for teenagers, What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, that was explicit enough to be banned by Kmart. It was all part of what Johnson called “my new job.” He would give what remained of his life to educating the world. Yet somewhere along the way—as he discovered that he was not dying, that his virus was in no hurry to turn into AIDS—Johnson began to reject that identity. He was about so many other things, had so much more he wanted to accomplish. If he did not have to, he did not want to be defined solely by a disease. “He moved away from that pretty fast,” says Joe Smith, the former chief of Capitol Records. “I think it was a smart decision. You don’t get into boardrooms that way. Ethical or moral, that’s another thing.” Johnson’s foundation, which gives away at least $700,000 a year in grants, adopted a broader mission: the vague goal of “serving the educational, health, and social needs of our urban youth.” (It has donated money to groups as diverse as the Telluride Film Festival, the New York City Mission Society, the Carson Athletic Association, and the United Negro College Fund.) His official bios, including those at www.magicjohnson.org and www.johnsondevelopmentcorp.com, make no mention of his HIV status. Neither does a single Hall of Fame exhibit.
While in Springfield, Massachusetts, for his enshrinement, Johnson visited a local high school, exactly the sort of opportunity for preaching safe sex that had been the cornerstone of his mission. But during the assembly he never uttered the words AIDS or condoms. Instead, he offered a generic pep talk about seizing the moment. “Man, I wish I was 16 again,” he told the teenagers, his voice breaking into a nostalgic whistle. “Oh man. Those the greatest times.”
NOW YOU SEE HIM. HOSTING HIS ANNUAL “Midsummer’s Night Magic” charity ball, filling in as a DJ on “The Beat,” offering his retired jersey to former NBA rival Karl Malone. Now you don’t.
He might be an L.A. pillar, but with business interests in 65 cities spread across 16 states, Johnson is almost impossible to pin down. In September, he was gone until October. In December, he was gone until January. In May, he was gone until June. During which time, Johnson’s executive assistant was replaced by a second executive assistant who was promptly replaced by a third executive assistant. Inquiries in his office are now greeted by a recording, which advises callers to put their request in writing and “allow four to six weeks for a response.” He is everywhere and he is nowhere. “One of the problems that exists for him is that he is the brand,” says Howard Schultz, who also owns the Seattle Supersonics, one of several NBA teams that Johnson has expressed interest in either buying or running. “It’s not a product, it’s him personally. The demands on his time and physical presence are very significant.”
He has a wife and three children (one from a previous relationship, one with Cookie, one adopted), more money than he will ever need, and a fatal disease. Yet he lives out of a suitcase, regularly spending 15, 20, 25 days a month on the road. Without intending to, perhaps, Johnson reveals more in his absence than his presence ever could. Worse than death for him would be rest, a life expended at home, on the sidelines, without game. “My wife tells me, ‘Please, go back to basketball, because you’re busier now than when you were playing.’” he says.
THE BILLBOARDS ARE BEAUTIFUL. Black and white. Intimate. Spare. In some shots—taken by Herb Ritts, who later died from AIDS—his eyes are closed. His chin is up. His fists are clenched. He is strong, poignant, even spiritual. The caption reads: HIV CHANGED MY LIFE, BUT IT DOESN’T KEEP ME FROM LIVING.
The billboards are striking yet baffling, another of Johnson’s sleights. For someone who has appeared of late to be so carefully avoiding the HIV label, they are a bold public acknowledgment. But they are not, on closer inspection, the work of Johnson. The small print reveals them to be an ad for GlaxoSmithKline, the multibillion-dollar drug manufacturer long criticized—and repeatedly sued—by AIDS activists for its alleged pricing and patent monopolies. For a $250,000 gift to his foundation, Glaxo turned Johnson into a pitchman. “It has been a conversation-starter in the AIDS community,” says Craig E. Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, an organization that once rejected a $100,000 grant from one of Glaxo’s predecessors, the Burroughs Wellcome Company in protest of its pricing policies. “People are very puzzled by what it all means: Why Glaxo? Why Magic? Why now?” Even more puzzling is the placement of the billboards, which began cropping up earlier this year in African American neighborhoods around the country. It makes sense as a marketing strategy; blacks have suffered disproportionately from the disease and now make up 47 percent of all AIDS cases in the United States. But as a matter of public health, it makes less sense to plaster the ads along, say a Mid City stretch of Washington Boulevard, where streetwalkers and seedy motels have become magnets for some of the riskiest of behaviors. Johnson’s message might be uplifting, but it is not one of caution. If you get infected, he seems to be saying, you can still look as good as me.
FOR MOST OF ITS 57 YEARS, THE FRIARS Club of California has been a showbiz locker room, a retreat for the legends of Hollywood to smoke, drink, and regale one another with dirty jokes. Its roasts have never been for the squeamish; the humor is male, a bonding ritual in which nothing is sacred. But until last fall, when Johnson received the club’s annual Lifetime Achievement award, never had the taunts been applied to an honoree known to be HIV-positive. “Our form of showing respect is, basically, ripping you a new asshole,” the Friars president, Irwin Shaeffer, warned him.
One roaster, a stand-up comedian named Vinnie Favorito, wasted no time going below the belt. Noting that another ex-Laker, Michael Cooper, was in the house, Favorito claimed to have asked Johnson what it was like playing together.” And Magic said, ‘He had the sexiest ass,’” Favorito told the audience. “The kind of ass you want to bend over the bench and just tag.” The room erupted, shrieks of laughter mixing with groans. “Oh, I’m sorry did I cross the line?” Favorito asked in mock contrition. Another roaster, the character actor Joe Viterelli, went a step further. He spun a tale that involved Johnson getting robbed and stripped of his clothes. “I was driving along the highway and I heard this hollering—’Help me, help me!’—so I stopped the car and I looked and it was Magic Johnson and he was handcuffed to a tree—naked,” Viterelli said. Rather than offer assistance, as he told it, he approached Johnson’s exposed rear. “And I said, ‘Gee, Magic,’” grinned Viterelli, pretending to unbuckle his trousers, “‘this just ain’t your day.”‘ Even former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks shed his by-the-book image and took a few jabs. He saluted Johnson for the success of his production company, which had just released its first feature film, Brown Sugar. The name, though, was an ironic choice: “It’s the one we gave him,” Parks deadpanned, “that night he spent in county jail.”
The event was, of course, a testament to survival; if Johnson were sick, nobody would be teasing. It was about something more, though, about recovery and redemption. When he first revealed his condition, the news was so shocking that any stab at levity was bound to be obnoxious. The laughs then were at Johnson’s expense, sophomoric snickers that relied on gayness for a punch line. (How did David Copperfield get AIDS? By doing Magic.) Now, a dozen years later, here were Magic Johnson butt-fuck jokes being told in polite company—and not merely tolerated but transformed into tribute. Whatever unresolved questions there may have once been, or may still be, about how he became infected, they had somehow been neutralized, stripped of their profane sting. Magic was back in the club.
Throughout the night, he howled and blushed, mopping his bald head with a napkin. “Well, well, well,” he said at the end of the roast. “I hope you have enjoyed this evening as much as I have.” Then he told Viterelli that, even if his story were true, his dick would have been too short to have reached.
The Faith Healer
HIS HOME PARISH IS WEST ANGELES Church of God in Christ, the cathedral of upscale black L.A. On a recent summer evening, as part of a national speaking tour sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson stood at the altar and urged his community to redouble its efforts against AIDS, to take the fight all the way to Washington. “Our problem is we don’t get involved in the political side,” Johnson told several hundred congregants, “but we get mad when the money don’t come.” Everyone in attendance received a thick packet of advocacy materials, from preaddressed voter registration forms to phone cards for calling representatives in Congress. Johnson’s portrait, from the same set of photos gracing the billboards, was on almost every piece of paper—the stamp of a campaign, or a revival. He does not always discourage the analogy. “God needed a face to the disease and I wear it now as a badge of honor,” Johnson said. It is the ultimate spin on a fatal infection. Johnson was not tainted. He was chosen. Instead of a curse, HIV was a blessing. If before he played for his own glory, he now plays for the Lord’s. “We’re gonna have church up in here today,” Johnson said.
A man stepped from the pews to thank him. “Good evening, Mr. Johnson—I mean, Governor Johnson,” he said.
“Don’t let Cookie hear that, “Johnson interrupted, dropping his head and laughing. “Please.”
Since the late ’90s, Johnson has been engaged in Crenshaw district issues, clashing with then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas over redevelopment of the beleaguered Santa Barbara Plaza. But in the last year or two he has begun using his influence to sway the course of events citywide, emerging as “one of the major individual endorsements in L.A.,” says political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, the former executive director of the city’s Charter Reform Commission. Johnson’s backing proved crucial to the 2001 candidacies of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Mayor James K. Hahn, both of whom enjoyed overwhelming support among black voters. It was not until Hahn objected to Parks’s reappointment as police chief, though, that Johnson stepped into the fray and declared himself a potential contender for the mayor’s job. “I would run for the people, not for me,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in March 2002. A few months later, when Hahn needed help keeping the San Fernando Valley from breaking away, Johnson agreed to join forces with him again, but not before making it clear that he expected some sensitivity in return. Hahn got the message; in January he promoted an African American assistant to the position of deputy mayor for human services.
Whether Johnson goes from posturing to actually exposing himself to the rigors of a campaign—for mayor or, for that matter, governor—is another question. Those closest to him do not believe he will, or should, go that route anytime soon. The job would be too confining, too moderate, compared with the scale and scope of what he does now. But he is just coy enough to leave everyone wondering. “I’m too young to be a mayor,” Johnson says. “Maybe when I get older.”
There is another explanation for his mixed political signals. A simple ruse: He does not vote. He did not vote in 2002, in either the primary or general election. Just as he failed to vote in both March and November of 2000. The only record, indeed, of him voting, according to L.A. election officials, was in 1992, the year he first registered. As with sex and health and money and sports, Johnson continues to be the exception, the prodigy. He can stand in church and goad the faithful into exercising their will at the ballot box, even if it has been years since he heeded his own word. “Earvin should stick to what Earvin does best,” says Jerry West, the former Laker general manager. “He should stick to being Magic Johnson.”
Yet what is a magician if not a prophet of sorts, expanding the limits of that which is possible? Inspirational figures never appear to be as earthbound as the rest of us. They ignore warnings and flout convention. They overestimate their own virtues. Cynics are more realistic—and less likely to self-destruct—but they rarely pull off the same feats. Even when they have miscalculated, wishful thinkers can sometimes trick themselves into succeeding. The power of delusion, to harm and to heal, is one that Johnson understands well. He landed a death sentence because he did not believe the rules applied to him; he still does not believe it, and now, miraculously his life is being prolonged. On the way out of West Angeles, everyone was handed a poster, wrapped in plastic and sealed in a cardboard tube. The face was familiar. The caption—WE ALL NEED SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN—was a slogan, a proverb, a Magic incantation.