By Karen Billing
Earvin “Magic” Johnson is about two things: Winning and giving back. At the Jewish Federation of San Diego’s 16th annual Men’s Event “The Magic of Caring for Others” on Dec. 6, the fierce competitor admitted that he still hates Celtics green and he regularly crushes his 17-year-old daughter in one-one one.
The Lakers’ NBA Hall of Famer said he learned in his life that you have to work hard to win and earn success and once you’re blessed with that success you have to pass it on — but not too early on the break to Kurt Rambis (“he would travel every time,” Magic cracked).
“I love helping people and it makes me feel really good to help,” said Johnson. “As you bless others you will be blessed and there’s nothing greater than that. You can’t take the money with you.”
More than 900 men attended the Men’s Event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds to hear Johnson speak as well as Gal Fridman, the only Israeli Olympic gold medalist. The event was free due to the generous underwriting by the Mizel Family Foundation. The foundation saw a leap in attendance from 250 attendees last year to the huge numbers last week.
“This is an incredible opportunity to bring lots of people together to support a vital center of Jewish life in San Diego,” said Carmel Valley resident Alan Viterbi, one of the event co-chairs. “This organization is responsible for helping so many people in need throughout San Diego, throughout Israel, and throughout the world.”
Viterbi said it was amazing to have two world-class athletes like Johnson and Fridman as guest speakers, both of whom have dedicated their lives to giving back to others.
Fridman won the silver medal in windsurfing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and won the gold medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Fridman said upon winning — the emotional moment when his national anthem played with people singing along so loudly he could not hear the recording — his mind flashed on words his coach had told him during training.
“My coach had told me I needed to think about what sort of person I wanted to be after I won the medal,” Fridman said.
He accepted his coach’s challenge and began working with underprivileged youth. In the last three years he has seen graduation rates grow in Israel and seen 90 percent go on to serve their country in the Israel Defense Forces.
Johnson said his love of giving back started early.
Growing up “very, very poor” in Michigan and with nine siblings, he learned early that he had to work for himself in order to earn any extra money.
“My father said there’s a rake for fall and a shovel for winter and a lawn mower for summer,” Johnson said.
He remembers one day going door to door to shovel snow in weather that was 7 degrees below zero. He got back home to thaw out with some extra dollars in his pocket when his parents told him he wasn’t done yet. They told him he needed to go back out and shovel the snow in his elderly neighbors’ yards because they weren’t able to get out — and he’d do it for free.
“I learned how to give back when I was your age,” Johnson told a trio of young boys in the front row. “It shaped me from a young man to becoming a man, to understand you’ve been blessed to be successful but your success is not going to be your legacy. Your legacy is how many people you can reach back and help.”
He learned from his mom and dad to have balance in his life and to do your part for your community. He said his father was the only hero he’s ever had and he still talks to him on the phone every Tuesday.
Johnson worked hard at his game to become “Magic,” and his work was rewarded as he was drafted as the number one pick in 1979 — he was pleased to note he was drafted shortly after winning the NCAA championship over Indiana State and career-long rival Larry Bird.
Johnson recalled a moment during his rookie season in the NBA, when his Lakers team was disheartened flying to Philadelphia to play in game six of the finals without their leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I was a rookie and I didn’t know anything about losing…I told my teammates, ‘Never fear, Magic is here’,” Johnson said. “At some time in your life somebody’s going to doubt you. They told me we couldn’t win. I had to take it on myself and show the world we could still win without our leading scorer. This little 19-year-old rookie had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.”
The Lakers won the championship.
“When your back is against the wall just come out strong with knowledge and have a game plan,” Johnson said, who would win five championships with the Lakers and make it to the finals nine times in 12 years.
In his life after basketball, Johnson works as a commentator on ESPN, was part of a group who purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this year, and in business has been busy bringing quality retailers to urban America to provide jobs.
He found success with Magic Johnson Theaters and with Starbucks—he opened 105 franchises in urban markets.
“It put people to work and brought a sense of pride to the community and taught other retailers that they can come into urban America,” Johnson said.
With Magic Johnson Enterprises, he invests in urban-based businesses and with the Magic Johnson Foundation he partnered with HP to build 25 technology centers throughout the country in underserved areas.
His foundation also provides scholarships for students to attend college — a lot of them are the first ones in their families to go to college.
“I love giving back,” Johnson said. “The one good thing about the people in this room is you already understand what you have to do. Get behind a cause you believe in and that you’re passionate about. We all won’t have the same calls, just as long as you’ve got one.”