From Basketball Court to Boardroom

Magic Johnson talks business, HIV/AIDS, and Larry Bird

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Fri, 10/20/2017 - 11:51

Magic Johnson earned five NBA rings as a point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, and then another five as part-owner of the team. At USF Oct. 18, Johnson spoke about how he transformed himself from a basketball legend into a business luminary and philanthropist.

“They said, ‘No way Magic Johnson could go from the basketball court to the boardroom,’” he told a crowd of more than 1,600 at the Sobrato Center at War Memorial Gym. “I couldn’t wait to show them.”

Johnson, who spent the event on his feet — walking among the audience, calling on students to answer questions and take photos with him, and cracking jokes — told stories from his life and career to inspire students to believe in their abilities and to do good for their communities. 

Johnson’s talk, moderated by Golden Gate Warriors President Rick Welts, was part of the School of Management’s Silk Speaker Series, which was made possible by a gift from alumnus Jeff Silk ’87 and his wife Naomi. 

Business that over-delivers

Since announcing he had HIV and retiring from the NBA in 1991, Johnson has become a powerhouse businessman and activist. His investment firm Magic Johnson Enterprises, valued at $1 billion, is focused on creating jobs and opportunities for people in poor communities. And his nonprofit the Magic Johnson Foundation has granted over $10 million to HIV organizations. 

Johnson told the audience about how he catered to minority consumers in urban areas to build businesses, including a chain of movie theaters and Starbucks stores. He was told his ideas wouldn’t work in under-developed communities, but he said “I don’t listen to that noise.”

African American and Latino communities have two trillion dollars in spending power, he said. And “we as minorities, we like coffee too.”

His advice for business success? Understand what your customers want and “over-deliver.”

Over-delivering is something of a mantra for Johnson, who is always striving to go above and beyond. When Johnson got injured and a doctor told him to hit the gym twice a day to heal, Johnson asked if he could go three times a day. And when he learned his basketball rival, Larry Bird, shot one to two thousand baskets per day, Johnson was motivated to shoot two to three thousand. 

“Sometimes your competitor can make you better,” he told students. “I don’t care if that’s in sports, business, or life. Larry Bird made me a better basketball player and a better person.” 

Reach back, give back

Despite his athletic accomplishments — three NBA MVP Awards, nine NBA Finals appearances, and 12 All-Star games — Johnson said he wants to be remembered for his contributions to society. Even as a star college player, he said, he made time to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club and be a “big brother” in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“Effect change,” he advised students. “Get involved in your school, in the community … go touch somebody else’s life that’s less fortunate than your own. Reach back and give back.”

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