Earvin “Magic” Johnson doesn’t bite his tongue when he says his purpose in life is to help “Black and brown communities across this country.” That’s precisely what he’s been doing by targeting Chicago, a city whose staggering rates of violence have reached epic proportions. Recently the retired NBA great opened his latest Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, a school that serves teens who’ve dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out, in the city’s Lawndale community on the West Side—an area with a reputation for being crime-ridden.
“[These young people] are forgotten. When we did research, we found almost 75 percent of the dropouts said if they had the chance to do it again, they wouldn’t have dropped out,” Johnson told EBONY.com. “I had to start these academies to get them back in school.
“The problem is, if you don’t have an education, you’re going to end up in trouble. So that means you’re going to prison or you’re going to end up dead. I want to give these kids an opportunity to come back, get a second chance in life, get a diploma. Hopefully, from there they would want to go to college. If not, at least they can [learn] a trade so they can get a job. I needed to take them off the streets and put them in [an educational] environment where they can learn at their own pace.”
Johnson’s academies are currently in six states. And he has just launched a follow-up organization called Friends of Magic whose goal is to provide resources and assistance to at-risk youth once they complete high school. “If you could mentor our young people, we would take that,” he said. “If you own a business and need an employee, our young people will take that. Anything you can do, that’s what a friend of Magic’s is.”
Grammy-winning MC and Chicago native son Common was on hand as the first “friend.” “When you take time to give back, it really says something,” explained the performer. “You make that commitment to give back to the circle of life. In Chicago, we have to give back. We all learn at our own rate and grow at our own pace. All people hear are the bad things about Chicago. We must give young people a glimpse of hope. This is one way of helping those who want to give up.”
Last year at this time, 18-year-old Haman Cross IV wasn’t in school. It wasn’t until the Michigan native finally located his father on Facebook last November that things started to turn around. His dad, Haman Cross III, a school resource coordinator in Chicago, relocated his son to the Windy City to live with him. The Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy seemed like his son’s best option.
Today, Cross IV is a top student at the school and recently had the auspicious honor of introducing Johnson during the Friends of Magic launch. Johnson was moved to tears after witnessing the eloquent teen, who (unbeknownst to the school’s founder) was even homeless at one point.
“He caught me off guard. It was so emotional,” said Johnson, who announced that the teen would be the Chicago school’s first recipient of a full college scholarship. “He blew me away. A lot of times, we have a hard time believing [we can do anything], especially minorities and Blacks. I remember how I saw two African-American men in Lansing, Michigan, owning buildings and car dealerships. I didn’t know we could do anything like that until I saw it at 16. That changed my life and my thought process. At first, all I wanted to do was be an NBA player. But after seeing them and having them mentor me, I wanted to also become a businessman. If they could do that for me, we can do it to some of these young people.”
Johnson’s next goal is to guide young NBA players, to counsel them on money management and prepare them for life after basketball so they don’t end up broke while playing and once the game ends. “Oooh, that’s next! God is good.”
Margena A. Christian is an EBONY magazine senior writer. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMargenaXan.