Magic Johnson stood holding a microphone, with a row of stained glass windows to his right. His voice rose and the energy amid the wooden pews grew electric.
Cheers swallowed the end of Johnson’s sentence. The hundreds of men gathered at West Angeles Church of God in Christ delighted in his message for the Lakers’ future.
Johnson couldn’t help but rally the crowd toward that vision for a moment. But for most of the hour and 17 minutes he spoke, Johnson focused on that day’s stated goal — encouraging men of color to succeed in business, education and with their careers. Since ending his Hall of Fame basketball career, Johnson hasn’t been shy in his activism. That won’t disappear now that he is the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, tasked with fixing what’s been one of the NBA’s worst teams for the last three years.
“I think I’m never gonna change,” Johnson said. “It’s not about my job or what I do. This is who I am. I’m going to always be a man that’s going to be involved.”
Johnson’s connection to West Angeles goes back more than two and a half decades. He’s a regular attendee of its church services led by Bishop Charles Blake. His wife, Cookie, initially found the congregation on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. Blake helped them cope with his HIV diagnosis in 1991.
That diagnosis seems to have spurred his activism in some ways. He became a voice for HIV awareness and prevention.
But he very publicly engages in other causes both political and apolitical. Two weeks ago, along with Blake, he lent his public support to Measure H, a Los Angeles ballot measure that added sales tax to help fund homeless programs. In 2014, Johnson became a face of “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative started by former President Obama to support boys and young men of color.
The church, part of a Pentecostal-Holiness Christian denomination, has actors such as Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett among its members. Blake called Johnson a faithful attendee of his services. Saturday’s program, sandwiched between Lakers games on Friday and Sunday, had a more specific aim, and it was only for men.
“ We’re focusing on what is in essence a target group,” Blake said. “The black male is not faring very well in the United States in terms of imprisonment and disproportionate numbers in jail. Black-on-black murder, and crimes, and jail. All these things. There are better ways of succeeding and living.”
Johnson was the keynote speaker at the event.
“I’m a man who always want to be about the community, giving back, touching them in a positive way,” Johnson said. “Now in my new role I want to continue that and also teach our players that. Give back. … Now they gotta also effect change too.”
After Blake thanked Johnson for not charging his normal speaking fee of $50,000, Johnson playfully corrected that it was usually six figures. He shared his own stories from his business ventures. He spoke of praying in public. He shared his own daily routine.
He took questions from attendees of all ages. He lauded an attorney in the room who owned his own firm and urged everyone younger than 18 to try to emulate that man.
He said part of why he agreed to run the Lakers’ basketball operations was that he needed a challenge.
“I’m competitive,” Johnson told the group. “I don’t like to lose.”
And while he insisted he’s just a regular person when worshiping at West Angeles, on Saturday he found himself mobbed for photos and handshakes as the event closed.
As of Saturday, the NBA was still in the process of reviewing Friday night’s dust-up in the third quarter of the Lakers’ loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Lakers guards Nick Young and D’Angelo Russell, and Milwaukee’s Greg Monroe, were all ejected for their roles in the incident. After the game, Lakers Coach Luke Walton said he wanted an explanation for why Russell was ejected, given that Russell had only pushed Monroe in the back. The official cause of Russell’s ejection was that he escalated the fight. Walton was also upset that a Bucks employee pushed Brandon Ingram during the dust-up. There is no NBA rule that restricts the access of team security personnel. … Backup center Tarik Black was not at the team facility on Saturday for practice. He is recovering from the flu and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Cavaliers. … Young has made 170 three-pointers this season and is just 13 away from the Lakers franchise record. He trails four players: Nick Van Exel in 1994-95, Kobe Bryant in 2005-06, Van Exel in 1996-97 and Chucky Atkins in 2004-05.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli