When former NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson took to the court in UNCW’s Trask Coliseum Oct. 11, it wasn’t to give youngsters pointers on the game that has earned him five championship rings as a player and as an owner.
Though he acknowledged “this little ball has taken me around the world,” referring to basketball he borrowed from a student in attendance and signed before returning, Johnson had a deeper message for the local middle schoolers in attendance that night. “Winners win and losers lose,” he said. “Don’t talk about being a winner, work at being a winner. Put the time in, put down the video games and be great at something.”
Johnson certainly knows a thing or two about being great. After announcing his retirement from the NBA in 1991 after being diagnosed with HIV, he went on to become one of the most influential African American businessmen in the world. His business portfolio includes a Major League Baseball team and a TV network. “I’m never going to quit,” he said. “First I was a basketball player, then a business man. I’ve dealt with HIV – I’m still here.”
As one of 10 children in Michigan, Johnson “grew up poor, but didn’t have poor dreams…we had the peanut butter, but not the jelly. We had the Kool-Aid, but not the sugar.”
He still had the big dreams and said education is the key to those dreams. When he was in 9th grade, he was bused to a predominantly white school whose basketball team had never made it to a tournament. He had to learn how to work with, go to school with and play basketball with people who didn’t look like him.
“No matter the game you play in, it’s about the challenge – believe you’re going to win,” he said. “You believe in you and always be prepared.”
On making the transition from the basketball court to the boardroom, Johnson decided to invest in his own community – urban America, saying, “God blessed me to take my skills from the court to help those in the inner city.”
He partnered with companies “to make what needed to happen, happen in this community.” He didn’t take a “build it and hope they come” approach. Johnson decided, “I’ll give you what you want, then you’ll come.”
He told gang members they were allowed in his movie theaters, but they couldn’t wear their colors. When he opened the doors to Starbucks coffeehouses in urban areas, he “took out the elevator music and put in Motown. Instead of scones, we sold sweet potato pies.”
Johnson was on campus as the keynote speaker for the Wilma W. Daniels Distinguished Lecture. The lecture celebrates UNCW’s efforts to serve the community, and particularly its focus on inclusiveness in all of its educational, cultural and community outreach programs. Daniels, a local business leader and member of the UNCW Board of Trustees, funded the lecture to support the university’s diversity efforts and to forge deeper connections between the local African-American community and the campus.
Johnson said Daniels, whom he was able to spend time with before the talk, “reminds me of my own mom. She cares about kids and the community and is keeping her (late) husband’s legacy going.” Johnson’s mother is actually from Tarboro, N.C. As a boy, he spent his summers there “in the peanut patches and picking watermelon as early as 5 a.m.”
Stressing “education, education and more education because education instills an appreciation of diversity,” Johnson said in closing, “I have reinvented myself several times, but never changed at heart or forgotten where I came from.”
Following Johnson’s remarks, Chancellor Gary Miller presented him with a UNCW basketball jersey, telling the Olympic champion, “You’re a member of the Seahawk family now.”
A photo slideshow of the evening may be viewed at www.uncw.edu/ur/gallery/2012magic_johnson/.