A curtain falls on one act and rises on another. Such has been the continuous narrative for Magic Johnson, who 20-plus years after receiving what was feared to be an immutable death sentence is not only alive but seemingly larger than life.
Through the years, Magic Johnson has had a social impact, long after he forged a friendship with Larry Bird.
For the past few weeks Johnson has been featured bicoastally as the face of the new Los Angeles Dodgers ownership group in the land of celluloid heroes and the driving force of a famous friendship with Larry Bird that was acted out in the flesh on the Broadway stage.
“Magic/Bird” ended a monthlong run on May 12, but the play as well as his move into baseball were reminders that Johnson has not only remained in the spotlight after contracting the virus that causes AIDS; he has grown far beyond his legacy as a Hall of Fame basketball player.
Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers’ point guard legend, was universally praised during his career as someone who — in the vernacular of the game — made teammates better. But it is also fair to say that Johnson has earned a place on the mythical Mount Rushmore of his generation’s athletes, whose social contributions have significantly built on competitive triumphs.
Can we dare speak of him across generational lines and with the same hushed reverence afforded Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and others from a more iconoclastic past? What sounds questionable at best becomes debatable at least when the still-mounting sum of Johnson’s efforts — like standing publicly tall against the tide of AIDS-driven fear and building commercial bridges between corporate and urban America — is considered.
“When you look at the totality of his life to this point, you have to say that the way he’s lived has reflected the way he played, in that he elevates those around him,” said Boyce Watkins, an author, commentator and scholar-in-residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University. “I believe he absolutely has made himself one of the greatest athletes in terms of social impact.”