Magic Johnson: The Businessman Behind the Basketball Legend

The basketball great is just the second person to be honored with Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.

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By Benjamin Snyder

Randy Miramontez |
Magic Johnson

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is known for his success on the basketball court as a star point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers who powered his way to five NBA championships during the 1980s. But since his retirement nearly 20 years ago, he's become a business powerhouse.

On Tuesday night, Johnson will be celebrated not only for his on-court achievements, but also for his success in philanthropy and in business, especially his support for urban communities. At Sports Illustrated's annual Sportsman of the Year ceremony, Johnson, 55, will become just the second person in the publication's history to receive the Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award.

The first was Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, in 2008.

"To be recognized by SI with a tribute that has only been given to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a woman who has made the world a better place for millions with intellectual disabilities, is very special and humbling," Johnson said in a statement ahead of the ceremony.

Johnson, too, has made it his mission to become an advocate for HIV/AIDs awareness after announcing he'd contracted it in 1991.

"When he retired from the NBA, Johnson's ubiquitous smile was a beacon to basketball fans the world over,"Sports Illustrated said in a statement. "It now represents much more: A life dedicated to creating opportunity for others as well as himself. Few athletes have done more with the stardom they gained between the lines of competition, which is why SI is proud to honor him with its 2014 Sportsman of the Year Legacy Award."

Since ending his NBA career in 1996, Johnson's ramped up his efforts as a businessman. He's the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises (MJE), a billion-dollar conglomerate he started in 1987 (while he was still active in the NBA) with sprawling interests in including ASPiRE, a television network; Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies, which helps high school dropouts get diplomas; and Clear Health Alliance, which helps provide health-care for HIV/AIDS patients.

"I get asked if I'm trying to help minorities or make money," Johnson recently told Sports Illustrated. "My answer is, I'm trying to do both."

Earlier this month, Johnson become an investor and board member for The Marvel Experience, a traveling entertainment show that includes an animated, 4D and multimedia heavy adventure featuring Marvel's super heroes.

But his business prowess extends even further than his current ventures as part of MJE. He once also owned 105 Starbucks and a 4.5% stake in the Lakers. He sold both and collected a reported $100 million in 2010. In 2012, he and Guggenheim Partners, an investment firm, purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2.15 billion, according to the MLB, which is the most money paid for a North American sports franchise.

"I am thrilled to be part of the historic Dodger franchise and intend to build on the fantastic foundation laid by Frank McCourt as we drive the Dodgers back to the front page of the sports section in our wonderful community of Los Angeles," Johnson said in a statement at the time.

The sale eclipses the Los Angeles Clippers' sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer which made headlines earlier this year for its $2 billion price tag. But it appears that Johnson's deal was more comprehensive with the group also acquiring Dodger Stadium as well as a television contract, parking lots around the stadium and land, according to The New York Times.

The company and Johnson have held stakes in a number of other businesses over the years, including owning a chain of movies theaters, which he's since sold, Burger King restaurants and health clubs, which he still owns. In 2006, MJE scored a deal with Sodexho, the world's largest food services and facilities management company.

With an estimated net worth of $500 million, and with MJE worth a reported $1 billion, Johnson is one of the most successful black businessmen in the U.S. Notably, however, there are just five black CEOs in the Fortune 500, with a sixth on the way in 2015. The list includes Kenneth Frazier of Merck, Kenneth Chenault of American Express, Roger Ferguson, Jr. of TIAA-CREF, Donald Thompson of McDonald's, Ursula Burns of Xerox, and Marvin Ellison, who will take the reigns of J.C. Penney next year.

Johnson happens to be a successful social media user, too. In September, he was the number one most commented on athlete in the NBA on Facebook despite being retired, according to statistics compiled by MVP Index, a firm that tracks athletes' online footprint through data analytics.

"Now that he's in business, it's interesting how he's turned to social media as a way to communicate about that transition and how he's talking about the brands he represents," said Kyle Nelson the company's co-founder and chief marketing officer.

Nelson said he had the opportunity to meet with Johnson recently about a partnership with MVP Index, although he declined to disclose more details. "It's interesting, when I met Magic a month and a half ago, Magic didn't come in the room and start talking sports," Nelson told Fortune. His past was his past, but the future that he wants is around business. He wants to talk business. He doesn't want to talk about the game that happened last night."

And as he wrote in his memoir, My Life, Johnson's father initially served as inspiration for his business prowess. "Dad didn't believe in handouts," Johnson wrote. "So as a kid, the only way I could get my hands on any spending money was to go out and earn it."

Benjamin Snyder

Benjamin Snyder is a writer at

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