LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

That time I met Magic Johnson

Basking in the gravitas, magnetism and big smile of one of the best players ever was just as magical as you’d think it’d be.

The entire week was a whirlwind. A sleep-deprived, hyper-caffeinated whirlwind. But when Magic Johnson is a guest speaker for a talk at 8:30 a.m., you get there early and lock down a prime aisle seat in the second row.

For my day job, I recently attended a conference in Washington D.C. It was fun and exciting and I got to meet a lot of people I previously only talked to over the phone or through email.

Johnson was also headlining one of the general sessions, which, for me was incredible but for a conference centered on the mortgage industry, was probably more for the wow factor than for tangible reasons. But everyone loves Magic and who am I to question such things. He’s the mogul after all.

His famed big personality shone from the second he strutted out. He held court for an hour, opting to work the room instead of settling into the pre-arranged chair on stage.

He touched on playing in the 1980’s versus how it is today. “First of all, we wore hot pants. I see Larry [Bird] and I say, ‘how did we fit in those shorts?’ Johnson quipped. “We didn’t take a lot of 3’s then. Now everyone wants to play outside-in like the Golden State Warriors, but not everyone has all-time shooters.”

Even in a packed conference hall full of buttoned-up business professionals, everybody hung on his every word, snapping pictures and swooning in laughter along with him. All his stories are captivating and he’s impossibly gregarious. He’s the most interesting man in the world crossed with the coolest kid from your high school. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around and say they knew one time. That’s Magic.

He talked about his rivalry with Bird.

“Larry Bird made me better, I owe him a lot. I knew he was shooting 2,000 shots a day, so I had to shoot 2,000 shots a day. We’re two kids from the Midwest who grew up poor. I loved playing against Larry. I hated him in the beginning. But then I went to his house because we were doing a shoot for Converse and they sent me there. He won MVP the year before, I won MVP that year. So I thought he should’ve come to me.”

We’re in the kitchen and Larry’s mom asked him, ‘Larry, did you tell Magic yet?’ Larry said, ‘No, mom.’ Then she turns to me and says, ‘Magic, you’re my favorite basketball player.’”

He transitioned to sharing insights from the Dream Team.

“I always wanted to play with Michael and Larry. The Dream Team checked that off my bucket list. Chuck Daly told me, Larry and Michael [Jordan] we were gonna be captains of the Dream Team. Michael said no because he wasn’t at our level yet. A leader understands what they need to do.”
“Michael and Larry talked so much trash, but Michael took it to another level. Who thinks about that in the middle of the game? He came up to me once and said, ‘Tell Byron Scott I’m scoring 50 tonight.’ 55 points later, he came over again and said, ‘I told you.’

Then Johnson discussed running the Lakers.

“I’m still the point guard now. I’m competitive as hell and I love to win. I looked around and said we didn’t have the guys with the right mindset. So we’ve done a lot of trading the last two years. I needed a superstar. I needed a leader to change the direction of the Los Angeles Lakers. We’re headed the right way but we needed an anchor. Somebody to raise everyone’s level of play. The West is gonna be tougher. There’s one team to beat, that’s Golden State. We’re not on their level, but we hope to get there soon.”

At the end, they took six questions from the audience and I was the sixth person in line. So I did what most people in my situation would do: Sweated profusely and mentally rehearsed my question as many times as possible.

I got two words in before Magic commented on my voice being a lot deeper than he expected. “Look at that voice! And you’re short too!” I told him “I’m tall on the inside.” It was a pretty great moment. Once I gathered whatever wits I had left, I got the rest out.

“How did you convince LeBron to come to the Lakers?”

He took a beat, then answered.

“I don’t know if I convinced him in terms of like, ‘here’s this master plan.’ I just told him what we had. I thought Brandon Ingram is going to be a star and he can help him. We have great young pieces, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart. We had guys I felt he could elevate their play. We have enough money to sign other free agents and I told him we’d deal some guys around. And then last but not least, we talked about where he was as a man. I said listen, I could help you go to where you want to go. If I could be a listening ear or if I can give you advice, you can run things by me. I just think that he felt it was time for a change. And he felt I was in a leadership position to help him achieve his next goals and dreams in his life. We all have to reinvent ourselves at some time just like I had to reinvent myself. I think that he saw a guy who could be his mentor. He told me he’s never had a mentor and he was looking for one and I could be that for him. I think he was just ready for a change and Los Angeles and me being in that position. He knew that I was about winning championships and he could rely on me putting him in a winning position. And that was it.”

Oh, and this happened:

Next: LeBron James isn’t worried about slowing down

Needless to say, I had a great conference.

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