Earvin “Magic” Johnson burst onto the American stage in the late 70’s as a game-changing collegiate athlete. Point guards were usually among the shortest players, but Magic stood 6’9”. His combination of athleticism, size, and ball handling and distribution skills were unheard of at the point guard position.
Magic and his rival Larry Bird played in one of the greatest NCAA basketball tournament finals of all time – the 1979 game between Magic’s Michigan State Spartans and Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Magic triumphed over “Larry Legend” that day, and the two would go on to NBA fame with the Lakers and Celtics respectively. Both earned multiple championship rings (5 for Magic and 3 for Larry) and became NBA coaches.
While Larry Bird has been a successful NBA executive and businessman since his retirement, Johnson has gone beyond that to build an empire. Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE) has grown into a billion-dollar enterprise with multiple offshoots and an emphasis on helping urban communities, making Johnson one of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs in history.
Could we say that Johnson’s success fulfills Martin Luther King’s dreams of racial equality? In some aspects, we can.
The front page of the MJE website states the goal of “fostering community/economic empowerment by making available high-quality entertainment, products, and services that answer the demands of ethnically diverse urban communities”. Let’s look at a few of these efforts and how they have fared over time.
- Magic Johnson Theatres – Designed to bring first-run movies to underserved urban areas, Magic Johnson Theatres opened in six locations – the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles, Cleveland, Houston, Atlanta, in the Harlem area of New York City, and near the Washington D.C. area in Largo, MD.
The intent was not only to bring a high-quality movie experience, but also to bring jobs and to act as a catalyst for further economic growth. The Harlem and Largo locations are still open and reasonably successful, but the others were closed for profitability concerns. The Crenshaw location was later renovated and reopened.
- Starbucks – MJE brought Starbucks to the urban market and introduced a focus on multicultural marketing to the franchise. Store décor, background music, and other factors were introduced to integrate the stores into an urban environment.
According to the MJE website, these stores have provided more than 2,100 jobs in urban areas.
- Bridgescape – Bridgescape Learning Centers are a combined effort with EdisonLearning designed to address the needs of at-risk urban students. It targets youth who have already dropped out of school or are at risk of doing so and helps them to acquire high-school diplomas. They also target life skills such as financial literacy and workforce readiness.
The Bridgescape Website lists a 64% success rate with eligible students receiving a diploma and continuing on to the workforce or to higher education.
- ASPiRE – ASPiRE is a TV network aimed at providing positive messages and inspirational programming to African-American families. According to the ASPiRE website, the network is “grounded in faith, family, and community.”
- Magic Johnson Foundation (MJF) – Originally formed in 1991 to fight HIV/AIDS after Magic’s diagnosis, MJF has expanded to provide scholarships, community empowerment centers, and other philanthropic ventures in underserved areas.
MJE has many other interests, including ownership in Burger King and fitness franchises and a partnership with Sodexo. Johnson has also turned his efforts toward reviving the fortunes of another proud L.A. franchise – the Dodgers. He formally owned a piece of the Lakers, and now is part of the team that owns the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
Many of the MJE efforts have certainly been directed toward equality in a positive fashion, by improving conditions and opportunities in urban areas. They represent a positive step toward Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind society, but, unfortunately, many more steps remain.