Campus News

Magic 'over-delivers' as MLK speaker

Earvin "Magic" Johnson

NBA legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson spoke to a sold-out Alumni Arena. Photo: Joe Cascio


Published February 13, 2015

Earvin “Magic” Johnson, at just 16 years old, sat on the top floor of a Michigan office building behind a desk fit for a CEO. With his feet on the desk, he paged his secretary to bring him coffee, donuts and the day’s newspaper.

The secretary was imaginary. Johnson actually had been hired to clean the building. But he held onto his dream of heading a business.

Thirty-odd years later, Johnson is CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises — a catalyst between major companies and urban communities — and co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team and Los Angeles Sparks WNBA team. All after a sports career that landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Johnson graced the stage of a sold-out Alumni Arena as the 39th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Keynote Speaker for the UB Distinguished Speaker Series.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson wades into the crowd at Alumni Arena.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson waded into the  Alumni Arena crowd, chatting with members of the audience and posing for pictures. Photo: Joe Cascio

But he didn’t stay there long. Johnson quickly found his way to the floor to chat with members of the audience and pose for photos while delivering his speech. After chest-bumping with a young fan he pulled from the crowd, he couldn’t help but say, “I came here to have some fun.”

To begin the lecture, Johnson immediately paid tribute to the work of King. He attributed the success of African-Americans in business, politics and sports to King’s legacy.

“I’m so blessed that he opened up a door for me to do what I love to do best,” said Johnson. “Because of Dr. King opening up the world — allowing us to go to a college like the University at Buffalo — we’ve had more mayors and governors of color, and Fortune 500 companies hire minorities to run their companies.”

Johnson’s message going forward was simple: over-deliver.

As a 19-year-old NBA rookie and self-proclaimed perfectionist, Johnson firmly believed he needed to deliver beyond what was expected of him.

When his head coach informed him practice began at 10 a.m. he arrived 7 a.m.

When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Laker’s star center and league MVP, went down with an injury in the 1990 NBA Finals, Johnson, then a rookie, led the team to victory with a dominating performance.

Despite Johnson’s accomplishments on the court, investors doubted he could achieve similar success in the boardroom. The first 10 banks he approached for a loan denied him.

However, Johnson eventually secured funding and created Magic Johnson Theaters, noticing the need for cinemas in black and Latino communities. In its first year, the theater was among the top 10 in the nation, says Johnson.

He later leveraged that success to convince Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, to allow him to build 125 Starbucks stores in urban communities — a move that cements Johnson as the only person outside the company to have owned a Starbucks. Johnson’s locations went on to outperform Starbucks-owned branches, he says.

“The main thing I’m happy about is not my career in basketball, but my work in urban America,” says Johnson. “I started my company because I wanted to not only build a successful business in urban America, but also hire and train people from my community.”

Through his firm, Magic Johnson Enterprises, he similarly partners with more than 40 companies.

And in case you are curious who Johnson considers the top three NBA players of all time, they are:

  • Bill Russell, the greatest winner.
  • Michael Jordan, the greatest player, and “trash talker,” he jokingly adds.
  • And Larry Bird, his greatest rival.