Magic Johnson celebrates his 55th birthday on Thursday, and has made as great an impact on the game of basketball as any player in NBA history. However, that still pales in comparison to his impact off the court. I’m here to make the argument that he will go down in history as the game’s most impactful player, and by extension, means more to the city he played for than any other player has ever meant to their own.
Johnson was selected first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1979 draft and his effects were felt immediately. Longtime, late owner Jerry Buss reportedly would not have purchased the Lakers had they drafted anyone else. Buss would go down as arguably the greatest owner in the history of North American professional sports.
Buss originally purchased the Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings, the Forum (later known as the Great Western Forum) and a 13,000-acre ranch from Jack Kent Cooke for a total of $67.5 million. Just this week, the Los Angeles Clippers officially sold for a record $2 billion. Based on that number, it’s not far-fetched to believe the Lakers alone are worth much more than $3 billion. While Johnson is not solely responsible for those otherworldly numbers, his joining the Lakers undeniably helped set the foundation for that growth.
His impact on the court is equally unquestionable. The NBA had never before seen a 6-foot-9 point guard. Johnson captivated fans with his passing and passion for the game, and helped the league rebound from decades of apathy. He and Larry Bird brought title games back to live telecasts after years of tape delays.
Then, after 12 years of bringing fans back to the NBA, the most critical chapter of Johnson’s career began. On Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson gave the press conference forever etched into sports fans memories. You remember where you were that day. I remember my mom breaking down in front of the TV as he bravely predicted he would change the way we view the disease. We thought he was a goner, but he proved us wrong, and we should’ve known better for doubting him. Of course, the young man who reinvented the point guard position and revolutionized the game would beat impossible odds. He has donated countless millions and hours to research and support for other victims. His survival two decades later shows that HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence.
On Feb. 9, 1992, Johnson returned to the court for the NBA All-Star game after being voted by fans to participate. He silenced any doubters and won the game’s MVP award. The performance was more than a game. It showcased Johnson’s message: HIV will never define who he is and there’s no reason to believe recovery isn’t more than just a distant dream.
That summer, he helped spread the game overseas in the 1992 Summer Olympics as a member of the Dream Team, and his inclusion was pivotal in convincing other superstars to join. Johnson served as team captain in Barcelona and functioned as a lead ambassador for the NBA. Foreign players like Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and others recall those games as the ignition for their passion for basketball. Again, Johnson was not the only player involved, but as he was the first domino to fall, there’s no telling how the games would have gone without his involvement.
Since retiring, Johnson has helped further revitalize the city with several Starbucks, movie theaters and countless other investments to give back to the city that’s given him everything. If that wasn’t enough, he’s become the face of the ownership group that purchased the new-look Los Angeles Dodgers, as they’ve become more relevant and competitive than they’ve ever been in LA. As icing on the cake, Johnson reportedly believes an NFL franchise will come to Los Angeles within the next two years, and wants to be a part of making that happen.
So now, on his 55th birthday, Johnson sits atop a sports and entertainment empire in good health and shows no sign of slowing down. Countless fans and athletes look back on his highlights, speeches and other memories along the way as pivotal moments that drew them to the game of basketball. Others speak to his bravery as an irreplaceable symbol of strength. I see him as the most impactful player in NBA history.
Happy birthday, Magic Johnson.