Magic Johnson Reminded Me Why I Fell In Love With Basketball

Getty Images/Courtesy Of American Express

Magic Johnson is and has always been my favorite basketball player. Ever. So when I had the chance this week to attend an intimate conversation between two NBA legends, Pat Riley and Magic Johnson, I was beyond thrilled. This was a dream night.

The hour-long conversation was moderated by ESPN’s Cari Champion and is part of a larger American Express NBA series called Teamed Up, and the discussion highlighted the duo’s amazing careers — together and separately — and of course had them recalling some of their most memorable moments with the Showtime Lakers.

They also shared their thoughts on this year’s NBA Finals. Riley claimed Magic would beat Lebron in a game of one on one, which you can watch below. (Of course, Magic is more complimentary of Lebron than himself, but we’ll get to that later.)

It was a special night for me because I grew up in Los Angeles and discovered my own sports fandom when the Showtime Lakers were huge. I’m just old enough to remember watching those last two NBA playoff runs with my dad, but I was also young enough that Magic wasn’t just a guy to me. He was a superhero, my Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man all rolled into one. He was Magic, but he was also magic — in the sense that my kindergarten-aged mind could barely comprehend the feats of athleticism and skill he displayed on a nightly basis. Plus, The Forum in Inglewood wasn’t too far from where I lived in Compton, before the Lakers moved downtown to the Staples Center.

In fact, in a roundabout way, it was Magic Johnson who prompted my longstanding Los Angeles Clippers fandom.

In 1992, when Magic made the decision to retire (the first time) after announcing his contraction of what is still a very misunderstood disease, HIV (or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus), I was too young to understand or come to grips with concepts like sex, groupies, or the moral implications of my hero’s infidelity to his wife Cookie. I knew two things: One, that my hero was sick, and two, that meant that my hero was mortal.

So I spent the night I found out crying. I cried because I wasn’t ready to not see Magic Johnson play basketball. I cried because I wanted to believe in magic. I cried because that situation prompted, on some level, the realization that you really can’t always rely on your heroes; that people you love are going to let you down.

Getty Images/ Courtesy Of American Express

I wanted Magic to be reliable, a stable figure in my life, I wanted him to be my hero, because things were getting tough. I was coming to the realization that the Compton I lived in was considered “a dangerous part of town,” and dealing with the ramifications from my parents’ divorce, which meant I was now in a completely different living situation than the majority of my peers (since I was lucky enough​ to go to a private school in the nice part of neighboring Long Beach), who still lived in two-parent households. I was so heartbroken about Magic’s disappearance from my TV screen, and therefore my life, that I decided that I couldn’t bear to watch the Lakers any longer.

Luckily for me, LA had two basketball teams. I was too young to know better, and now it’s just plain too late to switch allegiances. (As a lifelong Clippers fan, heartbreak and I have become old friends, but that’s a whole different essay.)

In their conversation, Johnson and Riley discussed heartbreak as well; they touched very briefly upon the monumental impact that Magic’s retirement had on the league and the game of basketball on the whole. And it certainly wasn’t just me who was impacted. Magic’s departure was a symbolic passing of the torch, the opportunity for the next great basketball player to step up and become a cultural icon. While many will continue to swear the GOAT rocked a Bulls jersey, I will always disagree. He wore gold and forum blue (shout-out to Chick Hearn).

After all it was in that jersey that Magic won five championships for my city, four of those with Riley as his coach.

The relationship between these two has clearly remained strong, even if they’re no longer working together. Riley shared the origins of both of his nicknames for Johnson — “Magic” and “Buck” — and Magic spilled on which team he believes would win between Showtime and the current Golden State Warriors. No spoilers here — to let him tell it, not only would the Lakers win a seven-game series against the 2017 Dubs, they’d sweep them in 4.

Everyone loves comparing classic teams to modern ones, but no one is more respectful of current players than Magic. His love for the game runs deeper than most players, as evidenced by the number of roles he’s inhabited in the Lakers franchise.

Arguably, the best part of the night was only tangentially related to basketball and ventured into the realm of music, which is something Riley and Johnson both share a passion for as well. Late into the conversation, out of nowhere, Pat Riley produced a mobile speaker from somewhere, plugged it into his phone, and promptly got up and started dancing. Magic, needing absolutely no encouragement from the assembled fans, immediately stood up and joined him in a quick 2-step. They revealed the 4-time champions’ locker room playlist included hits like of George Benson’s “Love X Love” and Jefferey Osborne’s “You Should Be Mine.”

Riley even played a snippet of Marvin Gaye’s 1983 All Star Game rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The two made quite a pair, dancing together onstage; it was a fantastic glimpse into a dynamic 30+ years in the making. It was also an opportunity to learn that my hero and I had the same taste in music, and had since I was watching, starstruck, on my old box TV set in my Compton living room. I’ve always been told I had the music taste of an old man, and it’s pretty damn nice to find out that old man just happened to be the NBA Hall Of Famer who formed the foundation of my entire love of basketball.

After that moment, when Riley shared his unprompted declaration that Magic Johnson is the greatest basketball player of all time, I found myself nodding in agreement. That’s an opinion he and I share to this day, even if I’m older now and less naive about expecting perfection from my heroes.

But watching him dance up on that stage, I realized that even decades later, Magic is still magic.