Could It Be Magic?
Before Magic, there was June Bug. Before the Lakers or the Michigan State Spartans, there were the Main Street School and the Everett High Vikings. Before Pat Riley or Jud Heathcote, there were Jim Dart and George Fox.
And before Hollywood or Inglewood, there was Lansing.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson is expected to be elected to the basketball Hall of Fame today for his memorable career with the Lakers. In the world of professional sports, too often tarnished by cynicism and greed, Johnson’s big smile and overflowing enthusiasm were refreshing changes. In the world of professional basketball, his ability to play like a point guard in the body of a 6-foot-9 forward was a revelation.
But not in Lansing. The people of Johnson’s hometown had seen his act for years. They had watched little June Bug Johnson dribble a ball down to the store with his right hand and dribble it back with his left. They had listened over and over to his dreams of dribbling from small town America all the way to the hallowed courts of the NBA.
They are not surprised that this journey is ending at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. They know how it all began.
A Tot and His Dot
Johnson grew up in the heartland of America, on Main Street, USA. Literally. There was plenty of family around, plenty of friends, plenty of love. Earvin Johnson Sr. and wife Christine have been married for 44 years. They brought up nine kids--Magic is the fourth-youngest--and have 23 grandchildren.
They certainly weren’t able to provide their family the kind of luxury Magic has enjoyed through his adult life but nobody left the Johnson table hungry, or went out into the Michigan winter improperly clothed.
It wasn’t easy. The family was crammed into a two-story, three-bedroom house on Main Street in a tree-lined, middle-class neighborhood, boys in one room, girls in another.
Lansing, the state capital, is a company town. The two major employers of this community of 447,000 are the state government and Michigan State University, but close behind is General Motors. Earvin worked on the assembly line for the automotive giant. But, needing a second job to support his brood, he also worked at a service station and later had a trash-collection business. He would come home exhausted in the middle of the night, slip into the bathtub to ease his aching bones and sometimes fall asleep there, never making it to bed. Christine worked for the school system as a lunch-room supervisor.
Seeing how hard his parents labored, Earvin Jr.--the Junior evolved into June Bug--would tell his father, “Dad, someday I’m going to take care of you and Momma.”
From his mother came the communication skills. It is eerie how much Magic resembles Christine, from the warm smile to the expressive hand gestures to the receptive eyes.
Earvin is quieter, but he obviously passed on his resolve to succeed and positive attitude to his son.
Just as important, he passed on his love of basketball.
Regardless of Earvin Sr.'s work schedule, there was always time for basketball. He and his sons would watch the NBA game of the week every Sunday, the father pointing out the subtleties of the game, subtleties he had learned as a high school basketball player in his native Mississippi.
“We girls sometimes wanted to watch something else,” said Magic’s sister, Pearl. “But there was only one TV and the men ruled.”
Besides the televised games, there were basketball wars on the playground down the street between Earvin and June Bug.
“We didn’t have a basket in our driveway because we were too poor to afford one,” Earvin said.
He showed his son no mercy on the court. There was liberal fouling either way. If June Bug wanted to beat his father, which he desperately did, he was just going to have to get better.
He worked at it. Christine would awaken at 6:30 a.m. to get the kids ready for school, only to find June Bug’s bed empty. He was already down at the Main Street School, shooting hoops before class.
At home, he made a dot on the wall with a pencil, used a folded pair of his father’s socks as a makeshift ball, and fired away for hours at that dot, his make-believe basket, all the while doing running commentary in which, of course, June Bug Johnson was the star of the game.
When he tired of that, he would open the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, grab some socks and shoot baskets, moving down a step at a time to increase the difficulty.
“That was his life,” Pearl said.
So didn’t this kid ever get into trouble? Well, there was the time in his preteens when June Bug came home with candy in his pocket.
“I knew he had no money,” Earvin said. “I made him take it back to the store.”
And then he made June Bug pull a switch off a nearby tree for his subsequent spanking.
But mostly, there were good times.
“You’d be sitting up in the house on Main Street, and you could hear that big, jolly laugh of his as he came down the block,” said Pearl of her brother. “It’s the same laugh he has today.
“And I remember, he always had his ball with him. I can’t think of a time when he was ever really down. Except when he lost a game.”
More Than The TV Was Black And White
Blue-eyed, blond-haired Greta Dart, Johnson’s fifth-grade teacher at Main Street School, introduced him to the white world.
Johnson grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, a time of extreme racial unrest in this country. And Lansing had its share of it.
The sting of prejudice cracked Johnson’s smile occasionally. He felt it when the family would go to Mississippi in the summer to visit his father’s relatives. He felt it later when mandatory busing put him in a predominantly white high school.
Johnson came home, while still a youngster, and asked his mother, “Why are there white people who don’t like black people?”
She told him, “Just because some people don’t love you doesn’t mean you have to hate them.”
Through Greta and her husband, Jim, Johnson found his path to integration. He became the teacher’s pet, staying after school to close the windows or tidy the room. On the way home from the playground, he would stop at the Darts for milk and cookies. Or to get his pants altered by Greta, who sewed.
Or he would go over simply to get measured. Greta would stand Johnson up against the wall and make a mark at the top of his head. As the years went by, those marks went way up that wall. Johnson was over 5 feet tall in the fifth grade. As chronicled on the Darts’ wall, he was up to 6 feet by the seventh grade, 6-3 in the eighth grade, 6-5 in the ninth and 6-6 by the time he started high school, on his way to 6-9.
When Johnson needed an adult to supervise an after-school basketball program in elementary school, he enlisted Jim. Jim delivered beverages in Lansing, and he often took Johnson on his route.
“It took forever, because he talked to everyone in every store,” Jim said.
Before he got his driver’s license, Johnson would ask the Darts to drop him and his friends off at parties.
But Johnson put restrictions on the Darts.
“We would get within a block of the party and he would say, ‘This is far enough,’” Greta recalled. “We would tell him we could take him right to the door, but he’d say no. I think he was embarrassed to have his friends see him dropped off by a white, middle-aged couple.”
Whenever Johnson got a new girlfriend, which was a frequent occurrence, he sent her by the Darts for approval.
“We kept telling him, our favorite was always Cookie [his eventual wife],” Greta said.
‘How About Magic?’
Johnson assumed that, after junior high, he’d go to Sexton High. It was his neighborhood school, it was where his friends went and it was where he desperately wanted to go.
But in the 1970s, mandatory busing required Johnson to attend mostly white Everett, across town.
“Momma, can I go to Sexton?” he asked Christine.
“You have to go where you’re supposed to go,” she told him.
He was bitter at first. And uncomfortable. He made the basketball team as a sophomore but found himself shut out by his teammates, who were reluctant to pass the ball to this high-profile newcomer. They regarded him as a hot dog who needed to cool his heels.
But they soon realized there was substantial skill beneath the show, that Johnson could take Everett to previously unimagined heights.
Fred Stabley Jr., a 24-year-old sportswriter for the Lansing State Journal, had heard about the Vikings’ new young phenom. He covered Johnson’s first game at Everett. The Vikings beat Holt High in overtime. Johnson had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
When Stabley returned to the office, he was asked, “What’s this Earvin Johnson like?”
“Nothing special,” Stabley replied. “He’s a great junior high school player, a gangly 6-6 kid. Oh, he’ll be a good high school player one day.”
That day arrived sooner than Stabley could have imagined. When Everett beat Jackson Parkside in the next game, 86-50, Johnson had 36 points, 20 rebounds, 15 assists and 10 steals.
“People sat there with their mouths open,” Stabley said. “They couldn’t believe it. It stunned me too. I had never seen anything like this kid at this age.”
As he walked to the locker room after the game, Stabley decided that Earvin Johnson Jr. needed a flashy nickname to go along with his flashy game.
“When I got to his locker, he had his little entourage of junior varsity kids around him, so I waited,” Stabley said.
And while Stabley waited, he thought. How about the Big E? No, that was Elvin Hayes. Dr. J was obviously out. Julius Erving had the copyright on that one.
Then, it came to him. This kid is a magician on the court. Magician ... Magic!
“We’ve got to call you something,” he told Johnson. “How about Magic?”
Fifteen-year-old Earvin Johnson Jr. nodded.
“Well, that’s OK with me, Mr. Stabley,” Johnson said.
“It took a month before the name got into print,” Stabley said. “I didn’t have the guts to call a 15-year-old kid ‘Magic.’”
Tim Staudt, a sportscaster at a Lansing television station, wasn’t impressed.
“That name is too hokey,” Staudt told Stabley. “It will never last.”
George Fox could see the magic from the beginning. The coach at Everett, he had heard from his players about this junior high kid “with charisma.”
Like any coach, Fox was more interested in the kid’s work ethic than his showmanship. What he found in Johnson was a pleasant surprise.
“Earvin was the hardest-working player I ever had,” Fox said.
At the end of the first practice, Fox had his players jog around the gym for as long as their stamina would permit. Johnson decided he’d be the last one to quit. But so did one of his teammates, Randy Shumway. One by one, the others dropped out, their tongues lolling, their legs aching. But Johnson and Shumway kept running.
After 30 minutes, the others players having long since stretched out on the floor, Johnson and Shumway were still going, their jog reduced to a walk.
Finally, they stopped at the same time, put their arms around each other and went to Fox with grins on their faces.
“Coach,” Johnson said, “we quit together.”
Johnson’s resolve and dedication showed on the court, but he always made sure there was some Showtime. If Johnson was the trailer on a fast break, he would often yell, “Yo!” to the ballhandler ahead of him. That was the signal for his teammate to lay the ball high up on the glass so that Johnson could swoop in behind and slam it through the hoop.
Fox said the greatest game he ever saw Johnson play was in a summer tournament in Saginaw, Mich. With Gene Bartow, then UCLA’s coach, in the crowd, Johnson was at his wheeling, dealing best. Fox swears that on one trip down the court, Johnson went behind his back with the ball, and then came back again in the other direction without missing a step.
While Johnson was still a sophomore, Fox asked him what his ultimate goal was.
“I want to be All-City,” Johnson said.
“You’ve got to set higher goals than that,” Fox told him.
Apparently that happened, for Everett reached the quarterfinals of the state tournament that season. In Johnson’s junior year, the Vikings got to the semifinals.
In his senior year, Johnson was averaging more than 40 points a game, but Fox wasn’t happy.
“You are putting on such a show, Earvin, that the others players are just standing around, watching you,” Fox told him. “If you want to win a state championship, you have to lower your average to only 25 to 30 points and get everybody else involved.”
Replied Johnson, “I’ll do it, Coach.”
He did and Everett did, indeed, win the state championship.
All of this, of course, did not go unnoticed by college recruiters. More than 100 schools courted Johnson.
Fox remembers the day Indiana’s Bob Knight came to Everett.
“Earvin was 6-71/2 or 6-8 by that point,” Fox said. “But with his big Afro, he looked about 6-10.”
When Johnson walked in to meet Knight, the coach said, “Hey, big fella, where in the hell are you going to go to school?”
“I don’t know, Coach,” Johnson replied.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Knight said. “If you come to Indiana, we are not going to give you anything. You are going to have to earn it.”
Ultimately, Johnson didn’t go anywhere. He stayed in the neighborhood and went five miles up the road to Michigan State.
“I always knew he wouldn’t want to abandon this town,” Fox said.
Still Handing Out Assists
Although he lives in L.A., has business interests stretching from coast to coast and basketball obligations around the globe, Johnson still finds time for Lansing.
On Labor Day weekend in 1987, the Darts heard a knock at the door of their Lansing townhouse. It was Johnson, a grin on his face and one of his most-valuable-player awards in his hand. He wanted them to have it.
Johnson invited the Darts out to the 1988 Rose Bowl game, in which Michigan State, the alma mater they all shared, beat USC. After the game, Johnson pulled Greta aside and handed her another present, a pendant containing four diamonds, one for each of the NBA championships he had won to that point.
In 1995, while making an appearance at a Lansing golf tournament, Johnson gave the Darts a check for $50,000, part of which went toward a cruise.
Greta still teaches elementary school in Lansing and Jim is a beer and wine wholesaler. The Darts never had children, but, outside of the Johnson family, nobody in town has a closer tie to Lansing’s favorite son.
“They were like my second parents,” Johnson said. “They gave me my first jobs.... They made sure I had everything I needed. They sent me to basketball camps, took me to every game they could and really helped me to stay out of trouble.”
And Fox? When Johnson opened a Starbucks franchise in Lansing, he asked Fox, now 67 and retired, to introduce him at the grand opening.
Stabley, now the sports information director at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant and gone from Lansing for 20 years, will never get away from his magical link to Johnson.
“We’ll get around some new group,” Stabley said, “and someone will say, ‘You know what Fred’s claim to fame is, don’t you?’”
When he dies, Stabley knows, his obituary will begin, “Fred Stabley, who gave Earvin Johnson the name Magic ... “
Said Stabley, “The years I watched that kid play were an absolute thrill. If that’s how my obit begins, that would be just fine.”
Johnson’s primary connection to Lansing, of course, is his family. His parents and half his siblings still live there.
“My dad was my hero,” Johnson said. “And I got my personality from my mother.”
Several years ago, he bought several acres in a rich, green wooded area of town on Delta River Road and told his parents to build their dream home there.
“How much do you want us to spend?” they asked.
“Whatever you want,” Johnson told them.
They opted for a two-story, seven-bedroom house, complete with a circular driveway, which serves as the gathering place for the entire Johnson clan on holidays and other special occasions.
The joy of that home was shattered on a November day in 1991 when Johnson called to tell his parents he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.
“It isn’t the end of the world,” Earvin told his son. “You can deal with it.”
Christine was in church at the time. When she arrived home and was told of her son’s horrifying revelation, she remembered, “That was the worst moment of my life. Oh my Lord, it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
She got into the car and drove around, aimlessly.
“I didn’t know where I was going,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
When she composed herself, Christine called her son and told him she wanted to fly to L.A. for the news conference.
“No, Momma, don’t come,” he said. “This is something I have to do by myself. Just pray for me and I’ll be home after the announcement.”
It was her faith, Christine said, that got her through the crisis.
“It’s in God’s hands,” she said. “All of us are going to die of something. He won’t die until his time.”
Along with the devastating news, Christine said, she had to deal with unkind remarks by some of her fellow Lansing residents.
“People can be so cruel,” she said. “I didn’t know how cruel until [then].”
But 10 years removed from that ultimate low, the Johnsons are about to experience the ultimate high, their son going into the Hall of Fame.
“I’m just glad the Lord kept me around long enough to see it,” Earvin said.
Christine said, “I’ve come up from being a little child working in the cotton fields of North Carolina, come up from having nothing,” she said. “When you look at how blessed we have been, it’s amazing. It blows your mind.”