BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: THE MAGIC MANJuly 4th, 2012
The eighth in a series that will appear from time to time about the backdrop to the interviews that took place for the writing of Dream Team.
It was only over the last couple of days—and, not, alas as I was writing Dream Team—that the thought of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory came into my head. In the mid-nineteenth century Carlyle, a Scottish writer, advanced the theory that at various times throughout history highly influential individuals came along who, by dint of some combination of intelligence, wisdom and personal charisma, make a decisive historical impact. “The history of the world,” he wrote, “is but the history of great men.”
To reduce this to the worst sports metaphor ever, it’s the bottom of the cosmic ninth, we need a pinch-hitter, and somebody splendid in the clutch better get the damn bat.
That got me wondering: If there were a Great Man on the Dream Team, who would it be?
Hint: Not Christian Laettner.
But back to all that in a moment.
During an interview with Josh Rosenfeld, a great public relations man for the Lakers in their Showtime heyday, I said: “It must’ve been weird for you. You had Magic, the greatest P.R. asset in the history of the NBA, and you had Kareem, who was one of the worst.”
And Josh said: “Believe it or not, Kareem was easier. Kareem would give you a yes or no answer—mostly no—and hold to it. Earvin never said no to anything, but he never really said yes either. What I should’ve realized was that he did practically everything, only in his own time.”
Journalists reading this blog will understand what I’m about to write, but it might come as a surprise to others. Which is:
The interview and the writing are the easy parts. Setting up the interview? Ah, that’s the bitch.
One begins lining up his interview subjects like a big-game hunter begins lining up his quarry. (Actually, that’s absolute nonsense since I was never even a small-game hunter. But work with me here.) In the case of Dream Team, the major catches had to be, as I link them in the book, Michael/Magic/Larry, the power subset that stood above all others.
They were difficult to hunt down for different reasons. Bird can be grouchy and doesn’t love sitting still to talk about himself. (Note: Okay, Jackie MacMullan calls and Bird says Hello.) Jordan is practically a hermit and had (still has) a long-standing beef with Sports Illustrated. (It wasn’t with me; more on that both in a future blog and in the book.) And Magic is just so damn busy.
Most of the time, when someone says he is too busy, it’s nonsense. A writer named Tim Kreider wrote a great piece about it in last Sunday’s New York Times:
But Magic—trust me—is BIZ-EEE. He is here, there, everywhere, his energy, ego and business instincts having turned him into the greatest combination of sports icon/business tycoon ever. (If he’s not, I’d like to hear other nominees.) And like all businessmen, he has to prioritize. What will help Magic’s business and Magic personally gets first priority, so talking to yours truly, even about something as dear to his heart as the Dream Team, did not exactly consume Earvin Johnson when he awoke each morning.
I exchanged a couple dozens emails with his dependable associate, Lon Rosen, that went something like this.
ME: Lon, I’m running out of time, man. I gotta get Earvin.
LON: He says he’ll do it.
ME: But he said he’d do it last month, too. And the month before that.
LON: Earvin will do it. We just gotta find a window.
ME: Pretty soon, the only window we’re gonna be talking about is the one I’m going to jump out of.
(A little drama never hurts.)
We finally decide that Magic will meet me in Dallas during the 2011 Finals, where he’s broadcasting for ABC. So before Game 3, I take a strong post position in the broadcast box, ready to draw a charge when Magic walks through the door.
“I know, I know, we’ll talk,” he says when he sees me.
“We gotta do it tomorrow, Earvin,” I say.
“Can’t,” he says. “Too much going on. Next day.”
Didn’t get it done the next day or the day after that. Finally, he says, “Okay 1 p.m. tomorrow at the hotel. I’ll see you then.”
And you know what? At that point it was over. If Magic says he’ll do it with an air of finality, he will do it.
We talked for at least 90 minutes, and—young people—here is today’s social media lesson: The man did not Tweet, did not text, did not excuse himself to make a call, did not so much as glance at his cell, did not for one second pretend that he was interested in anything else except talking to me.
Okay, he doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize and some might say he was just exercising common courtesy. But Magic’s many and varied businesses probably lost or made a half a million bucks in the time we talked, and, by the way, have you noticed what’s happened to common courtesy? Even with people who are a helluva lot less busy than Earvin Johnson?
A couple of players did a little sniping at Magic in Dream Team, and I’m not just talking about Clyde Drexler, who has taken the brunt of criticism for something that is not entirely his fault. There was some behind-the-scenes grumbling—Jordan is particularly intriguing on this subject—about Magic’s outsized personality, his gift of gab, his insistence on holding the reins of leadership and never letting them go.
But the criticism only went so far. What the man accomplished is simply too manifest to brush to the side.
I feel the same way. Selfishly I counted on Magic, the NBA’s Sunshine Diplomat, just like every journalist who covered the league did, but even as I was quoting him I didn’t always find Magic sincere and wondered if he wasn’t dispensing a certain amount of horseshit dipped in sugar. Magic’s nature, see, is simply at odds with most cynical journalists. He sees the proverbial glass as not only half-full but resembling a magnificent goblet laced with gold. We see a half-empty glass that needs washing.
I’m still not sure about Magic’s sincerity but having come to the end of this project, I realize this: That is my problem. Magic does not worry about being two people. He admits it himself. “There’s Magic and there’s Earvin,” he says, the former the outgoing cheerleader, the latter the serious businessman.
And say what you will about his effervescent, the-world-is-my-oyster personality, but no one else could’ve single-handedly changed a national dialogue from everyone-is-going-to-die-of-AIDS to let’s-talk-about-living-with-this-thing.
Which brings us to my Scottish homey Carlyle. Is Magic the single most important person in the history of the NBA? Not the best. But the most important, its Great Man.
Clearly this is a longer discussion, but let’s look at it briefly from the perspective of other sports. Babe Ruth was baseball’s first Great Man, to be followed three decades later by Jackie Robinson. Magic is neither of those. He did not single-handedly create interest in a sport and make it the National Pastime, nor did he courageously break down centuries-old racial barriers. Neither is Magic Johnson a Great Man in the sense of Tony Hawk, someone who exponentially elevated the craft of his sport.
Moving to basketball, where individuals can be enormously important, I would argue that the first Great Man was George Mikan, his oversized fame and oversized frame giving the league a tentative toehold on the American sports landscape in the late 40s and early 50s. Then Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain came along together, Great Men both, working in tandem, establishing a competitive paradigm for the league.
But it didn’t hold. The NBA devolved. Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed … great players all. But the league was in perilous trouble when, in 1979—with celestial trumpets blaring and a chorus of full-throated angels singing in the background—Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league.
Who did more? I’m not asking who was the better player—a question I get into in Dream Team—but who did more to move the league, at long last, into the same cultural arena as baseball and football, where it remains? It has to be Magic. He was the go-to quote, the man who, more than Bird, transformed the image of the league, the man who made it cool to smile, cool to pass the ball, cool to be okay with the press, cool not to do coke, cool to get along with everyone. He set the paradigm for what a player should be like. He did it to a greater extent than Bird did it, and he did it before Michael Jordan did it.
So along come the HIV announcement and the revelation that the most Magical thing about Johnson was the volume of his sexual conquests, and it all comes crashing down. For a while. But then, after a few missteps—like creating an AIDS foundation without choosing a single gay man or woman to serve—Magic starts to build it back up. He starts talking about dieting and exercise. He gets healthy. The dialogue about HIV starts to change and he’s changing it. He says some dumb things (“Keep you cap on,” referring to condom use), but he starts to educate himself and talk to the right people and say the right things, and next thing you know we’re talking about HIV and AIDS in the locker room, the place where you don’t talk about anything serious.
I will leave it to you to decide if Earvin Johnson is the NBA’s all-time Great Man. But I absolutely guarantee you that nobody could’ve done what he did.