Johnson’s charitable endeavors and help in the process of researching HIV/AIDs as well as advancing society’s understanding of it have made him one of the most important public figures in NBA history. Those contributions — as well as his play on the court — led singer/songwriter Bob Hillman to want to honor Johnson, and will do so by releasing a new song, ‘Earvin Magic Johnson,’ on Johnson’s birthday.
The song touches on Johnson’s rivalry with Larry Bird, Johnson’s inspirational battle with both HIV and the public perception of it at the time, and more, and is available to listen to on SoundCloud below, followed by a Q and A with Hillman about it:
So why make this song now? How long have you been working on it?
I wrote the first draft of this song a long time ago — maybe 2007 or 2008 — but was never satisfied with the words; I rewrote it in early 2015 and published a lo-fi video that has 500+ YouTube views. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. At the risk of sounding self-important, I think I’m saying something interesting and possibly trenchant about Magic’s experience in the early 90’s. Could there be a wider audience hanging out at the intersection of music and basketball? The problem is, this kind of song doesn’t fit neatly into an album concept, except maybe a basketball album. So, I asked my friend Rick King to help me make a “real” recording with good mics, other instruments, etc. and launch it into the world as a stand-alone single.
Why does Magic Johnson need a song made about him?
The November 7th, 1991 announcement was fundamental to my, and at least some of my generation’s, understanding of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Up to that point, it was something I thought about in conjunction with gay men and heroin addicts, but Magic’s journey shed new light. In hindsight, we knew so little about HIV/AIDS, as evidenced by Karl Malone’s reaction.
By the time Magic retired, played in the All-Star game, took over as coach, rejoined the team as power forward, and retired again in 1996, I had a more advanced conception of the virus and disease, which was useful in general but especially so when my cousin contracted HIV in the late 90s.
“Societal implications” aside, I was interested in examining Magic’s personal story, which probably mirrors other HIV/AIDS stories, except it played out on the national stage. What was it like to go from being at the top of his game and one of the most-liked athletes in America to enigmatic and controversial? We watched him hang on, but eventually he had to recede or at least regroup. Conceptually, my song ends when he retired for the last time — “watch the athlete disappear/under the weight of hate and fear” — but of course we now know that Magic’s is a great redemption tale.
When you were prepping for this, did you come across other songs about him?
I’m aware of one other song about Magic: “Magic Johnson” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love its energy, and the fact that it name-checks A.C. Green, another former Laker who should probably have a song written about him. In general, there are too few songs about basketball players, and I’m going to do my part by following up with one about Kareem and another called 17,505. I hope most hardcore Laker fans will get that reference!
Is there anything else you think people should know?
I grew up in Los Angeles and was a serious fan in the Showtime area, which coincided with my playing high school basketball. I saw plenty of games through the early-mid 90s, but drifted away from basketball and sports in general when I moved to New York and started making my way as a singer-songwriter. Proximity has something to do with it, but it’s also worth noting that they weren’t my Lakers anymore. Without Magic, Kareem, et al. — then, without Chick — I didn’t feel the old energy.
My enthusiasm for sports revived when my two young sons showed interest, but by then we were living in San Francisco. First, the Giants won three World Series championships, and then the Warriors took over! I’m struggling to define and maintain my allegiances under complicated circumstances, but I’ll never top living the Lakers and Dodgers of the late 70s and early 80s.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen, and Hillman’s song will release on all platforms on Magic Johnson’s birthday, August 14.