It might seem impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when Magic Johnson was afraid of Los Angeles.
Johnson is not only arguably the most beloved player to ever suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers, but is now the team’s president of basketball operations. He also boasts a nearly 100 percent approval rating in L.A. after signing LeBron James in free agency this summer.
Plus, given Johnson’s famously outgoing and gregarious personality, it’s hard to imagine him ever not wanting to go out and hobnob around the city. But in an interview with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s “Kneading Dough” series, Johnson said that during his rookie season, he just went from his apartment to games or practices and back.
“I was so scared of the city that my first year I just stayed in my apartment the whole time,” Johnson told Carter. “I just said you know what, let me do the first thing I need to do, which is become a great basketball player.”
But while Johnson knew he wanted to be as great of a basketball player as he could be, he also knew that he had interests beyond that. So when then Lakers owner Jerry Buss saw that his 19 year old star player was moonlighting as a shut in and asked Johnson to start coming to lunches and dinners with him, Johnson jumped at the chance to pick Buss’ brain for the secrets of success beyond the court.
“It made a lot of athletes upset, and my teammates upset. There was an unwritten rule at the time that you don’t befriend the owner,” Johnson said. “That was difficult, because they didn’t like it.
“I had to explain it to them (by saying) ‘I don’t care what you guys think, I’m going to hang with Dr. Buss. I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not saying what happens in the locker room, or what happens on the bus, or the plane. We’re talking business, and I’m getting ready for my life after basketball,” Johnson continued, remembering that his teammates laughed when told them he wanted to be a businessman when he was done.
Now that Johnson is a successful businessman with a net worth reportedly around $600 million, no one is laughing, and Johnson knows who to thank.
“I owe a lot of it to Dr. Buss.”
During Johnson’s second season in the NBA, he played in just 37 games due to a lingering knee injury. But Buss wasn’t going to let Johnson sulk by himself.
“He said ‘this is a good time for you to start reading up, getting prepared, so I’m going to take you through the books and start explaining the business to you. The real Laker business,’” Johnson recalled, detailing how Buss started showing him the Lakers’ season ticket holder numbers and the details of their TV and radio contracts.
The experience gave Johnson an up-close-and-personal view of what it was like to be the owner of a professional sports team, experience that — while he didn’t know it then — would be critical for him down the line.
Even more valuable, though, would be the strengthened bond he built with Buss.
“He just became a father figure and a mentor all at the same time,” Johnson said.
Now, an owner teaching a player the business side of things wasn’t exactly legal by the letter of the law of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, something Johnson can laugh about now.
“It was against the owners’ rules and the players’ rules. So we were both breaking the rules,” Johnson laughed, although he also explains away any violations as just an example of Buss being “a game-changer,” using Buss inventing the Laker Girls as an example.
“He wanted to be the first, he wanted to be a pioneer,” Johnson said. “He was a visionary, he was way out front, and he didn’t care what people said. And this is one thing I want people to realize about Dr. Buss: He didn’t see color…. If you could get the job done, you good.”
Johnson certainly got the job done on the court for the Lakers, leading them into a title in his first year with the team. And between his interest in the team’s business and incredible abilities on the court, he impressed Buss enough that the owner was again willing to risk making more people angry by giving Johnson a record-setting 25 year, $25 million contract, the biggest of its kind at the time.
“All the owners were upset at him for giving me that deal. And then my players, they were upset too,” Johnson said, and if the owners and other players couldn’t believe their eyes, they weren’t alone: Even Johnson was flabbergasted when he first saw the offer.
“Man it brings back chills even thinking about it,” Johnson said. “He put that check in my hand and my hands just kept shaking, and I kept looking, and I said ‘All them zeroes?! Really Dr. Buss?’ And he said ‘Really.’
Johnson said that framed check is still at his mother’s house today.
A little over a decade later in 1994, Johnson would cut Buss a check of his own, becoming the first African-American to even own part of an NBA team.
“I went to Dr. Buss and he said ‘Earvin, I’ll do it, but you’re gonna have to pay for it,’” Johnson recalled, and said he had saved his money, and simply cut Buss a check.
Some of the money Johnson had saved had come from Buss himself, and not just from Johnson’s Lakers paychecks. Johnson remembers he and Buss used to go to Las Vegas “like every week during the offseason.”
On those trips, he an Buss would fly in and get whisked off to Buss’ own private table, where Buss would try over and over to get Johnson to sit next to him and play, with Johnson continually saying no.
“I’m going to sit behind you and be the most expensive cheerleader you’ve ever had,’” Johnson remembers telling Buss. “So he said ‘no, no I got all this money come and play, take the chips.’ So I said ‘Cool.’ Then I take the chip, and put it in my pocket.”
As he retells this story, Johnson laughs that legendary laugh that’s won over more than a few Lakers fans and business partners alike, the laugh that makes him seem like your friend Magic. Continuing, he says Buss was “an unbelievable gambler who did very well,” meaning that after a weekend in Las Vegas, Johnson had what he estimates was $20,000 to $25,000 in his pockets.
“I was stacking!” Johnson said, laughing again.
Decades later, Johnson had already sold his stake in the Lakers, but he was still incredibly close to Buss, who by the 2012-13 NBA season had been battling cancer for four years and was nearing the end of his life.
One day towards the end, Buss’ daughter Jeanie called Johnson to let him know that her father wanted to say goodbye. When Johnson arrived at the hospital, Buss sat up in his bed for one last conversation with one of his best friends, a man he by all accounts essentially considered a surrogate son.
“And he says, ‘you know what impressed me about you?” Johnson remembers. “‘We used to go gambling, and I thought I was doing something, giving you some money. And I look up and you’re putting it all in your pocket!”
Johnson pauses, laughing again at the good times with his friend and barrier-busting business partner.
“I said ‘Dr. Buss, I grew up poor, I hold on to my money!” Johnson laughed “I’m not no gambler.”
Johnson recalls Buss nearly falling out of his bed laughing at this point too, and then saying “That’s why I loved you and knew you were going to be successful… That’s also why I let you into the Lakers. You were always an outstanding young man. When I told you to be there at 4:00, you were there at 3:00. When I told you you had to meet the bankers, come say hi and take pictures, you were there doing that. Whatever I asked you to do, you were there. That’s why I let you in.”
Then, after saying all those nice things, Johnson recalled that Buss had one more reminder for Johnson about all the business lessons he had taught him, adding “And you could write a check.”
Johnson has written plenty more checks since, for numerous successful deals. Buss’ lessons paid off, and a poor kid from Lansing, Michigan who was once afraid to walk around Los Angeles has become the city-running, moving and shaking businessman he always wanted to be.
All quotes transcribed via UNINTERRUPTED’s “Kneading Dough.” You can watch Johnson’s full interview with Maverick Carter here. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.