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The legacy of Magic Johnson

Kobe Bryant. Jerry West. Wilt Chamberlain. These are all great Laker basketball players, but Magic Johnson has had the biggest impact on Los Angeles.

Even by today’s standards, Magic Johnson is clearly an amazing basketball player. He won the Most Valuable Player Award three times, led the Lakers to five NBA championships, made the All-Star team 12 times, and retired with the career assists record. At 6’9", Magic dominated point guards who were usually 6’1" to 6’3". Magic changed the game with his amazing behind-the-back passes, and his ability to light up the arena with his famous smile. Magic’s charismatic playing style brought the Lakers into the Showtime era, and into prime-time television.

But Magic is more than just a great basketball player. He is an icon. People look up to Magic and can relate to him.

"He’s been more than a basketball player, he’s been more than a winner. He’s been a person who’s left his mark on the city of Los Angeles, the NBA, all over the world," Lakers legend Jerry West told The Associated Press at the unveiling of a Magic Johnson statue outside of Staples Center last year.

When people think of Magic, they may think of the kid from Lansing, Michigan, who fought through poverty and adversity to become a success with the Lakers. Magic’s story inspires by showing that you can accomplish your goals if you work hard enough. Most of all, however, people have connected with and rooted for Magic because they are charmed by his positive attitude and amazing smile.

"For all of his accomplishments, the thing I liked most about him is he’s been so approachable," said West. "I think he smiles in his sleep."

Behind the showman

However, there is another side of Magic, as Earvin "Magic" Johnson explained in an interview in the conference room of his Beverly Hills-based Magic Johnson Enterprises, which is decorated with his photo on the cover of—surprise—business magazines!

He said, "I think Magic Johnson is just wonderful because he tries to make people happy. And that’s the difference between Magic and Earvin. Earvin is a very serious guy, and a guy who is a focused person. Magic is fun, happy-go-lucky and he loves to make people happy."

In 1991, when Magic announced that he was retiring from basketball because he was HIV positive, people were shocked and saddened. They thought Magic’s life was ruined. But Magic decided to follow his dream and become a businessman.

"I wanted to do two things when I was growing up, about your age. I wanted to play in the NBA, and I wanted to be a businessman after my basketball career was over, and that is what I am doing now."

At first, people didn’t respect Magic when he applied for bank loans to invest in businesses because the bankers didn’t know the Earvin side of him.

"The banks weren’t treating me too well. I would get the meetings with the banks, and they would want my autograph for their son, and a picture with them, but they didn’t want to give me any money. But I kept knocking on the door, just like we were talking earlier about, [basketball players] who have never made it. I had a no-quit attitude, just like they have a no-quit attitude. So, [after] about 10 of them turned me down, I went to the 11th bank and they said yes, and here I am."

His investments are wide-ranging

Earvin decided to invest in a lot of recognizable companies you have seen bearing the Magic Johnson name including Starbucks, Burger King, TGIF Fridays, 24 Hour Fitness and Magic Johnson Theatres. What set Earvin apart was his willingness to locate his investments in otherwise poor and under-served communities that other developers considered too risky and dangerous.

Earvin soon realized he could make a lot of money even without using the Magic name. Earvin paired with Canyon Capital Realty Advisors LLC to form the Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund. The Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund buys rundown buildings, and builds them back up.

"I feel good about it," Earvin says about the Fund. "We are out raising about $500 million for the second fund. All of our partners have re-upped with us with more money because we made them a lot of money on the first round."

Part of the reason Earvin has been so successful in business is because he is fun to work with. When you talk with Earvin, he will flash you his famous smile, make you laugh, and give you compliments like this compliment he gave me during my interview with him, "Wow! You did your homework!"

"He has been terrific to work with," says Josh Friedman, managing partner of Canyon Capital Realty Advisors.

Earvin has been so successful in business, people are comparing his business skills to his playing talents.

"He is turning out to be an equally good businessman as he was a player," said Dave Smith, host of the Dave Smith Show, which airs 4-7 p.m. on 1540 the Ticket (AM).

That is saying a lot.

"He was a joy to watch. He is the greatest Laker of all time. What can I say? There has never been a greater Laker, there has never been a player more fun to watch, more unselfish, more popular with the fans," said Smith.

Today, Earvin sees himself more as a businessman than a former basketball player.

"I am a businessman. This is what I do each and every day. I love it. I love coming to work. I never have a bad day."

Now that Earvin has a successful track record in business, the banks have a new willingness to lend him money.

"In business, we control about a billion dollars worth of real estate, and we are excited about that. Forbes [business magazine] said we are worth a lot of money. Now all those banks want to give me as much money as I want, but I keep telling them no."

Don’t give up

Magic has some encouraging tips for teens.

"If somebody says no to you, or if you get cut, Michael Jordan was cut his first year, but he came back and he was the best ever. That is what you have to have. The attitude that I’m going to show everybody, I’m going to work hard to get better and better."

"A lot of times growing up you don’t want to eat your green beans, and your spinach, and all the other healthy things that you should eat. So, I would encourage young people to do that. And get outside! What is hurting young people today is that video games are killing us because we don’t get outside like we used to."