Magic urges athletes to become businessmen

Books, common sense, and an athlete’s drive and focus are a winning combination

Black pro athletes make millions, yet none are listed on the annual Forbes list of richest Americans. Their team owners, however, are listed.

Why aren’t they following Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s lead? He’s not yet on that list either, but clearly he’s the most visible of former Black pro athletes today who has successfully transitioned from playing in shorts to playing in a larger arena where the players play for real big money — and they don’t play around.

“I’m serious about business,” says Johnson, who has opened coffee shops and movie theaters in urban areas. He also has started three investment firms and is a partner in everything from selling ground beef to Burger King to recently getting a contract to serve food in four airport terminals in Los Angeles.

He also founded the Magic Johnson Foundation, which has awarded over $1.1 million to community organizations that focus on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, and which has supported more than 800 high school students with college scholarships.

“The same drive, the same focus, the same paying attention to detail that made me [a great athlete] is the same that I bring to the boardroom,” says Johnson. “It’s about execution and hard work. I’ll outwork people. I’m competitive. I want to win at everything.

“All my teammates said that I couldn’t be a businessman,” he admits. “Then, when I made the venture with Sony, they said, ‘It will never work.

The community is going to tear [his first theater] up, and tear it down.’
No scratches or incidents in 14-15 years [at the theater he opened in South Central Los Angeles].”

Last month Johnson was in town speaking at a day-long minority business opportunity fair in St. Paul. Afterwards he met with four reporters, including this columnist who asked him the question often asked in this column: Why don’t more Black pro athletes invest into the community?

“I followed Dave Bing, who had Bing Steel in Detroit,” says Johnson, a Lansing, Mich. native, of Bing, who played 12 NBA seasons (1966-78), nine of them for the Pistons, and learned the banking and steel business in his off-seasons. He is now mayor of Detroit.

But the ultimate life-changing point for the former 13-year NBA veteran and now hall-of-famer was not Bing, who’s also in the hall, but rather a former teammate and hall-of-famer as well. “When Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] went broke and his agent took all his money, I think that changed my whole life.

“The problem [today] is that we are into too much of blinging and buying things, and we are not really investing in the things we are supposed to do,” continues Johnson. “There are a high number of NBA and NFL players, 50 percent, who [become] millionaires and then go broke. We got too many of those instead of those saying, ‘I want to invest and also give back to the same community that helped me to become an NFL player, a NBA player, a Major League Baseball player.”

One exception is current Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who sought Johnson’s advice about starting a business. “Last week I talked to him,” recalls Johnson. “He called me, and I said, ‘Cool, let’s talk about it.

Concentrate on your season right now. After the season, I’ll take you through it.’ It takes guys to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I had to say, ‘I don’t know business [and seek advice].’

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. How many players you think reached out to me, in all the leagues? Probably 10, which doesn’t make sense,” surmises Johnson.

“I’m blessed to be able to help the community. But more and more athletes are helping the community in different ways. We want them to do more in our community, but we want them to learn how to also be businessmen so they can put people to work, and they can have a long career in business.

“You can’t think of being just an entertainer or athlete anymore. Look at our president,” says Johnson of the notion that being a pro athlete is the only way out of poverty. “That’s not the [only] way out. The way out is to educate your mind, go on to the University of Minnesota, Michigan State or wherever and get you a good education. Then go on to the business world, own your own practice, or whatever you want to do — be a lawyer or a doctor.”

Johnson says he believes that Black kids should dream. “Show them those men and women in our community who are doing something.”

“A good businessman has good common sense,” notes Johnson. “You have to have great common sense mixed with your book sense. It can’t be all book, and it can’t be all common. It has to be a combination of both — that’s what makes a great businessman.”

More excerpts from Johnson can be read on our “Another View” blog: Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to