At 6’9, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, retired point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, literally had to duck to enter the Student Center Theater Room on the campus of Jackson State University.
“Let me congratulate all of you on your efforts up to this point in your life. The season is about to begin,” Johnson told the student-athletes, coaching staff, and spectators awaiting his arrival on Oct. 10.
Who better to give a pep talk before the start of basketball season than a Hall of Famer who spent 13 seasons in the NBA?
Johnson made a stop at the HBCU while in town to attend the annual scholarship luncheon held by the university’s first lady, Deborah Bynum, at the Convention Complex.
Offering encouragement tinged with humor, Johnson engaged students in candid conversation while sharing highlights from his heyday as a Laker. Yes, he confirmed that Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were the hardest to defend, saying Bird could “shoot yo’ eyes out.”
He also revealed that despite stepping down as president of the Lakers, he is still helping the organization in different ways. “I’m a Laker man. I’m always going to be a Laker.”
Some students initially appeared shy as Johnson called on them for questions others feigned an unruffled coolness, but all seemed magically mesmerized.
Besides, it’s not every day that one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, according to CBS Sports, strolls into the room.
Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, with six sisters and three brothers, Johnson said he learned self-discipline from his father, a 30-year employee of General Motors and owner of a trash hauling service. During the summer, Johnson would spend days working with his dad. One moment in particular still stands out in his mind.
“My job was to pick up all the loose trash around the barrels, and then he would get the barrels. It was so cold, seven below zero,” he explained. “I got half of the trash, and I ran back in the cabin of the truck.”
Johnson said that just when he closed the door, his father pulled him from the truck, dragging him through the snow to the barrels where loose trash remained.
“He said, ‘Listen if you do this job halfway, you’re going to do everything in life halfway,’ and he was absolutely right,” said Johnson.
On that day, the baller said he became a perfectionist. “I’m a disciplined man; that’s who I am. I love being in the gym, so the coach didn’t have to ask me to be in the gym. I took the key. I let myself in.”
Speaking to the JSU coaching staff, Johnson said there is no way their athletes would reach their potential without discipline. He then reminded students not to always rely on coaching and take the initiative to improve by watching extra film and practicing jump shots and free throws.
“You, it has to be on you. It has to be inside you, and then they help you after that. For me, I’ve been disciplined my whole life,” he shared.
A principle that could easily be credited for his successful basketball career consisting of a Most Valuable Player Award as a rookie and later three Finals MVP Awards. He was a nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team and a 12-time All-Star who led the Lakers to five championships during the 1980s.
Don’t believe the hype
Knowing yourself, Johnson said, is how a player can stay poised through chaos and not get caught up in the hype. “Self-evaluation is the most important thing. Big game coming up. You know yourself and what you need to do to prepare yourself,” he said. “Everyone here, every man and every woman prepares differently in what they need. I have to have quiet. I had to get away from everybody and get mentally ready and focused.”
The business owner shared that he was able to take the same preparation, focus, discipline and competitive spirit gained from basketball and transition into entrepreneurship. “Even when it’s chaos going on, now, I’m still cool and calm because of basketball.”
Although he admitted it was challenging switching careers, Johnson said he first had to believe in himself. He then acknowledged another valuable resource – mentors.
“The thing that really helped me was the mentorship of other men and women in those positions being entrepreneurs, CEOs or presidents of companies. They were able to help me with my transition from basketball player to the board room,” he said.
Still, Johnson explained that he had to have an open mind to be educated. He pointed out that many times, people are not welcome to criticism, which limits one’s ability to improve or move to the next level.
“I was coached hard. I’m glad I was coached hard. I had two tough coaches who stayed on me. They knew how good I could end up being, but they rode me right, to make sure I reached that potential,” he underscored. “My college coach didn’t let me slide with nothing, and I’m glad he was like that. Pat Riley in the NBA was the same way.”
Excellence and experience
Johnson not only instructed student-athletes on their sportsmanship and skill, but he also advised entrepreneurs to understand the industries they are pursuing. He urged them to do their homework and research to ensure there is a demand for their product.
“What do you want your brand to look like and stand for?” he questioned before using McDonald’s as an example. “When you go there, you already know those fries are going to be good,” he said as laughter rang throughout the room.
An owner of a hodgepodge of businesses including Sodexo Magic, one of the largest foodservice and facilities management companies in the nation, which also provides meals to JSU students, Johnson emphasized the importance of ensuring a healthy return on investments.
“Right now, we own the (Los Angeles) Dodgers. We have concessions, parking, tickets, so we have multiple revenue streams coming in,” he said.
Johnson explained that sometimes, as minorities, “we get caught up in doing the same thing that’s already out there.” Like adding another hair salon among a market saturated with hair salons is not a wise investment unless one is offering something fresh and different.
A concise and robust business plan is also necessary, he shared, before again imploring students to believe in themselves.
“My brand is about excellence and best in class. That’s why I love Dr. Bynum. We’re the same way,” he said, flashing his wide smile as he spoke of JSU’s 11th president. “I knew he was going to come dressed today, so I had to come, too, with my suit on. I know the brother. I know him. He’s about excellence.”
When it comes to the role of HBCUs, Johnson said his perception of them or the role they play has not changed, which is why he donates to various schools throughout the country. He also accentuated the gravity of getting an education and being able to do it in Jackson, Mississippi.
“I’m just hoping that we (black people) don’t forget that you can come and have an experience that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “I’m talking about a life experience that you can’t get anywhere else. I think you can get the same education somewhere else, but you can’t get the experience.”