‘They Call Me Magic’ Explores the Spellbinding Journey of Earvin Johnson

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Image: courtesy of Apple TV+.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary tells us that the word magic means, “an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source.”

It’s a nickname that was given to Earvin “Magic” Johnson by a sportswriter because of his basketball skills while starring at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan.

“I was assigned to cover Earvin’s first game,” said Fred Stabley Jr., the Lansing sports writer who gave Johnson the “Magic” nickname. “He did stuff I had never seen on a basketball court before.”

Indeed, Johnson’s basketball prowess was enchanting for all to see in part because, at 6-foot-9, players with that kind of size usually didn’t have the court vision or ball-handling skills that Johnson possessed.

As time moved on, we all came to realize that “Magic” not only was an apt reference for his game but also for the journey that made him a larger-than-life figure whose impact knows no boundaries.

Indeed, it is a story unlike any other, a story that will be told in greater detail this week with the worldwide release of the four-part docuseries, They Call Me Magic, which will debut April 22 on Apple TV+.

In an interview with EBONY correspondent Ronda Racha Penrice, Johnson opened up about several topics, including how the docu-series came about.

“Once [Michael Jordan’s docuseries] The Last Dance finished with Michael Jordan, everybody just said, ‘Listen, yours has to be next?’ When are you going out with your doc series?” Johnson said. “Once [my wife] Cookie and I agreed to do it, it was about finding the right partner. Apple TV+ was the right partner.”

Aligned with the right team, Johnson’s focus soon shifted to making sure all the key elements in his story were included.

“I wanted to go all the way back from my journey that started in Lansing, Michigan—making sure my parents were in it,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, people I grew up with and played with in high school: Dale Beard, Kenny Turner, Greg Kelser at Michigan State, all my childhood friends are in it. When I think about winning a state championship in Lansing, winning a national championship at Michigan State…then coming up to the Los Angeles Lakers, and finally, the real Showtime Lakers talking about Showtime and not somebody’s opinion but the real Lakers; Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Pat Riley, Jerry West. It’s been amazing talking about how we came about and won five championships; how we came together and went to the NBA Finals nine times in 12 years. We had an awesome run and really entertained people with our style and how we played basketball.”

In the docuseries, the impact of Johnson and the Lakers as well as a renewed rivalry with Boston, shine through.

“We changed the game,” Johnson said. “[Former Boston Celtic] Larry Bird and I at the same time coming in together, and Michael Jordan taking it to another level.”

Johnson’s docu includes influential individuals off the court as well, such as a couple of former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. “All these great people in it,” Johnson continued. “It’s great.”

Like most young folks, Johnson had visions of what greatness would look like. But the life he has lived proved to be grander than his wildest dreams.

“I never thought it would get to this level of greatness,” he said. “I just wanted to win and play the game the right way. I never thought about being a celebrity or being known all over the world and do the things I have been able to do on the court but off the court as well.”

Johnson’s work within Black and Brown communities in America, as a philanthropist and a businessman, have been notable for years.

“I never thought it would come to this level or get to where I am today,” revealed the hall of Famer and business mogul. “I didn’t think that big.”

But his journey, while magical, has had its share of challenges along the way. However, Johnson said that didn’t add any layer of difficulty in opening up for his docuseries.

When asked by EBONY, if there was a part of the production that was difficult to film, Johnson replied, “not difficult to film, but just making sure it was in.”

He said more than anything, opening up was emotional, especially when it came to discussing his announcement that he had tested positive for the HIV virus in 1991, as well as his son E.J. announcing that he was gay.

“All these different things really touched my life and changed my life and shaped my life,” added Johnson. “Because I love family. You’re going to see that in this doc-series, that I am all about my family. I love being married to Cookie. I love being a father, a husband, and now a grandfather. Everything I have in this doc-series is what I wanted to have in it. It’s going to touch every emotion. You’re going to laugh, cry, think. It covers every emotion, for everybody.”

And that gives this docuseries the potential to do what we’ve come to expect from Earvin Johnson—being magic.

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