Magic Johnson has magic touch in business, too

ByABC News
December 8, 2008, 11:48 AM

BEVERLY HILLS -- Almost nobody would question Earvin Johnson's skill on the basketball court. But in his second career as an entrepreneur, there were doubters from the start.

Johnson, best known by his nickname "Magic," remains one of the best players to ever don the gold and purple Los Angeles Lakers uniform. Johnson was the star point guard and a key to the Lakers' domination in the 1980s, helping to hand the team five NBA championships. An oversize copy of his No. 32 jersey hangs above the Lakers' home court.

But despite his towering 6-foot-9-inch stature and vise-grip handshake, at first glance, Johnson didn't seem like such a natural in the boardroom.

Executives he pitched on a business idea developed when still a player opening high-quality movie theaters and restaurants in inner-city neighborhoods often didn't see what he saw. Instead, "they saw me as just a basketball player," he says from inside his modestly decorated offices in Beverly Hills.

In his recently released book, 32 Ways to be a Champion in Business, Johnson wrote that executives would "hand me a basketball and ask for an autograph, but they did not want to hear my pitch for investing in neighborhoods populated by blacks."

Johnson, 49, isn't your typical buttoned-up executive. He sits comfortably reclined in his chair, speaks casually, and freely flashes his trademark smile. Retired from basketball following his stunning 1991 announcement that he had contracted HIV, Johnson has focused on succeeding in a business world where many former athletes have failed.

But Johnson says he had a dream and a concrete plan. While traversing the urban hearts of cities in team buses to basketball games, he saw boarded-up businesses and a lack of retail outlets. He told himself he'd help revive some of those neighborhoods when he could, he says.

And that's the magic of Magic. While other executives steered clear of urban areas, Johnson saw opportunity. His business plan, his overtime performance after basketball, was to bring established retail brands to the inner cities by tailoring them to the residents.