Last Monday, just four days before the beginning of the NBA season, Magic Johnson announced he was retiring for good. It was almost a year from the Nov. 7, 1991, press conference when he said he was leaving pro basketball the first time, because he had HIV, which causes AIDS. What follows is the first of three excerpts from his autobiography, "My Life." Today he talks about growing up in East Lansing, Mich., and about how he used the prejudice of a high-school security guard to motivate him. --------------------------------------------
I grew up in the kind of black family that people today worry is disappearing. Even though there were nine of us, we had what we needed - two great parents, food on the table, and time for the whole family to be together. To provide us, my parents worked terribly hard. My father had two full-time jobs, and Mom worked just as hard to keep the household going. Seven kids kept her busy, but she also had jobs outside the home.
This was in Lansing, Mich., an hour and a half from Detroit. Our family lived in a stable neighborhood of working people. It wasn't the suburbs, but it wasn't the ghetto, either. Lansing is a big factory town. General Motors was really cooking during the 1950s, so there were plenty of jobs. Most of the fathers I knew, including mine, worked for GM or one of its subsidiaries.
I was born on Aug. 14, 1959. My mother says I was a jolly baby who smiled a lot, and that I let just about anybody pick me up and play with me. That sounds about right.
I was chubby before I grew tall, and when I was young people called me June Bug. Grown-ups in the neighborhood would be going off to work, and when they passed me with my basketball, I'd hear them say, "There goes that crazy June Bug, hoopin' all day."
My original nickname disappeared a long time ago, which is fine with me. Man, I'm glad I didn't have to go through my professional career with that name: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, playing guard for the world-champion Los Angeles Lakers, June Bug Johnson!"
We were a close-knit family, and we had fun together. Just about every Saturday night we had a pizza party. Mom would cook up a batch of homemade pies with onions, peppers, mushrooms, and hamburger. After supper, we'd all move into the living room with big bowls of popcorn to watch TV. When I think back on how television influenced me, what comes to mind isn't a program, but a commercial for Camay soap. It showed a tall, elegant lady who seemed to live in a castle. She was about to step into a huge, sunken bathtub. For some reason, that tub just called out to me. That's it, I decided. When I grow up, I'm going to live in a big mansion with a gigantic bathtub just like that.
My notion of what it meant to be rich came from one of my part-time jobs. There were two successful black businessmen in Lansing, Joel Ferguson and Gregory Eaton, who owned nice homes and drove nice cars, and everybody admired them. I used to clean their offices. Whenever I went over there I'd sit in those big leather chairs and put my feet up on those wide desks. I'd pretend I owned the place. I'd imagine that everybody in the whole building worked for me, and that I had the respect of the entire town.
Dad didn't believe in handouts. So as a kid, the only way I could get my hands on any spending money was to go out and earn it. There were times when I thought he was a little too careful, especially when he wouldn't buy me something I thought I needed. But then I'd hear, "You want five dollars, Junior? Here, take the lawn mower. There's a lot of grass in this town, and I bet you could earn that money real quick."
My father's favorite player was Wilt Chamberlain, but we used to watch all the greats: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson from Milwaukee, Bill Russell and John Havlicek from the Celtics, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West from the Lakers. During the games, my father would point out tthe subtleties of the pick-and-roll play, and explain the various strategies.
I wanted to be good, so I practiced and played constantly. As hard as my father worked on his jobs, I worked on the basketball court. But I always found a way to make it fun. When I was alone, I'd play imaginary full-court games between Philadelphia and Detroit. These always boiled down to a one-on-one confrontation between my two favorites, Wilt Chamberlain and Dave Bing. I'd be Chamberlain going one way and Bing going the other.
Occasionally I got to see Dave Bing in person at Cobo Arena in Detroit. Going to a basketball game in those days was not as difficult as it is today. Tickets were a whole lot cheaper, and you could usually get one, too. These games were fun - especially in Detroit. The Pistons were not a good team, but that didn't matter because the games were great social events anyway. The crowd, which was mostly black, was really dressed up: the women in their nice coats and fur collars, the men in big hats, and eye-catching hip suits like you would never see back in Lansing.
I miss places like Cobo. When I got to the pros, it bothered me that although black players were dominating the game, there seemed to be fewer and fewer black fans. Most of the teams had moved out to the suburbs, and ticket prices were so high that many of the older fans could no longer afford to come.
I don't know exactly when I understood that basketball was more than just a game for me, or when the outside world started to matter. But I was probably around 10. My fifth-grade teacher, Greta Dart, and her husband, Jim, played a role in my growing up that was second only to my parents. Outside of my family, they were the most important adults in my life. And for all that's happened since, we're still close. I was in the first class Mrs. Dart ever taught, although she was far too smart to let us know that.
Jim Dart drove a truck for Vernor's, a well-known Michigan soft-drink company that made only one product - ginger ale. Jim took good care of me. He's a basketball nut, and he used to take me with him to the games at Sexton High, which was right in our neighborhood, and at Michigan State University, just a few miles away. After I finished seventh grade, he sent me to a basketball camp at the university. The program was run by Gus Ganakas, the assistant coach, and he and I became friends. From then on there was always a pass waiting for me at the Michigan State games.
Sexton High. It was the pride of the west side, and was known throughout the state of Michigan as a basketball powerhouse. The school, which was all black, was only five blocks from our house. Everybody in the neighborhood supported the Big Reds, and we all went to the Sexton games. This was Showtime, Lansing style. Someday my turn would come. I, too, would play for Sexton, where I'd be part of that great tradition.
But I hadn't counted on busing. Some people have the impression that only whites were against forced busing, and that most blacks supported it. Not in Lansing! We hated busing, and nobody hated it more than I did. Our family lived just outside the cutoff line. Suddenly we weren't allowed to go to Sexton with all our friends. All of us were bused to Everett, a white school on the south side of town.
Busing was still relatively new; we were only the second group of black kids to attend the school. The previous year, a few whites had thrown rocks at the buses. Some white parents had even kept their kids out of school rather than let them attend classes with blacks. Things had improved a little, but it was a long time before we stopped feeling like outsiders. There were about a hundred of us at Everett, and at basketball games, the black kids all sat together under the basket, like a big black dot on a white page.
The year I came to Everett we were picked to finish last. But we got off to a great start and won our first six games. Then came a game against Jackson Parkside, which I'll never forget. They were picked to finish first, and they were very good. But we were better, and we just destroyed them. I had one of the best games of my entire life, and finished with 36 points, 18 rebounds, and 16 assists. A triple-double, although back then nobody used that phrase.
Not everybody at Everett High was supportive. The school's security officer was a guy we called John the Narc, who used to patrol the hallways, checking for hall passes and looking out for any evidence of drugs.
John didn't like me. Maybe he was jealous of all the attention I was getting. Or maybe it was good old-fashioned prejudice. Whatever the reason, he loved to tell me that I would never amount to anything. "You think you're really something because you can play ball," he'd say. "But you'll see. You won't even graduate from here. No black kid ever comes out of here and is successful. You're just like the rest of them."
I hated him, but I never said a word. I figured that he was dying for me to talk back so he could get me in trouble. Instead of responding, I just let it wash over me. John the Narc would be shocked to hear it, but I turned him from my enemy into my biggest motivator. Starting in 11th grade, I worked harder at school than at basketball. After I graduated, I returned to Everett twice just to see John. The first time was a few months later, when I brought along the grades from my first semester at Michigan State. I had a 3.4 average, and I wanted him to see it.
The second time was two years later, when I signed with the Lakers. Now, for the first time in my life, I could afford almost anything I wanted. And what I wanted most of all was a car - a beautiful blue Mercedes. I treated that car like a treasure.
I was on my way back to Michigan State to finish up the semester. But first I had a stop to make. Early in the morning, I shined up the car and waxed it yet again. Then I drove it to Everett High School, right onto the front lawn. I asked one of the students to find John the Narc, and to tell him that some guy had parked his car up on the grass. Sure enough, out came John to deal with the problem. I just sat there behind the wheel with my arms folded. When he came up to the car, I rolled down the window. "Oh, hi, John, is that you? Well, I guess I didn't amount to anything, did I?"
His face turned red - the nicest shade of red I've ever seen.
From the book "My Life" by Earvin "Magic" Johnson with William Novak. Copyright (c) 1992, by Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Random House, Inc. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.