Earvin Johnson Jr. got his nickname while he was playing at Everett High School in Lansing. When his mother, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, first heard her son referred to as Magic, she considered it blasphemy. She was also the first to consider the practical consequences of the name. "When you say 'Magic,' people expect so much," Christine Johnson says. "I was afraid that it would give him a lot to live up to at some point."
During Johnson's first few seasons with the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar always made it a point to refer to him in public as Earvin and not Magic. Kareem says he finally gave up when he realized almost no one knew who he was talking about. By the end of his rookie season, Magic was no longer just a nickname, but a true magical being, with a dazzling smile. Still, not everyone liked it. "Magic is a stage name. It's unreal," Riley says, "and that's what magic is—unreal. It's fantasy. Nobody can be magic for the rest of his life. When he was young it was fun to be Magic, but what happens when he's 33 or 34, when he starts slipping? That's when the name can jump up and kick him in the butt."
Johnson's friend Isiah Thomas believes Magic conjures up expectations that even a name like Dr. J does not. "I hope what has happened to him never happens to me," Thomas says. "He's at the point now where he plays great, great basketball every night and it's not even noticed." Thomas considers Johnson's performance in the All-Star Game last February proof of the extra set of standards Johnson has created for himself. "He had almost the same statistics that I had the year before, and I was the MVP of that game," Thomas says. "But because it was Magic, people just kind of said, 'Ho-hum.' " Johnson finished the game with 21 points and 15 assists; Houston's Ralph Sampson, with 24 points and 10 rebounds, was named MVP.
Earvin and Magic often overlap one another, but Johnson's closest friends are able to distinguish between the two. Charles Tucker, a clinical psychologist who is Johnson's long-time mentor and friend, prefers Earvin—the quietly reflective homebody—to the glitter image of Magic. "I don't like all that high-pollution attitude," Tucker says. "That's not the kind of person Earvin is."
To an extent, Johnson has become a prisoner of his own celebrated image—"the Pied Piper," as Riley calls him, leading the world in a merry dance to his magic flute. Says Darwin Payton, a close friend, "A lot of people treat him like he's supernatural because of the way he plays. Eve been with him in a lot of places, and wherever he is, he's the man. When he's at a club, the stars all come over to see him."
"A lot of people think they know him from seeing him out or seeing him play," says Nixon. "But they don't."
Johnson says he conceals that serious side of his personality—the Earvin side—until he is home alone. "I don't have to worry about smiling or anything then," he says. "I just sit back and be me."
Or more precisely, the me nobody knows. But that is not the only me Johnson can be. He may be Magic to his fans, but he is Magnum to Thomas and Aguirre, Buck to his teammates, Earvin to his other friends, E.J. the Deejay in the L.A. and Lansing discos, and Junior to his parents.
Any of those, of course, is an improvement over June Bug, which is what the neighbors on Middle Street called him when he was growing up. (One wonders now how this young man's life might be different if, instead of becoming Magic, he had remained forever June Bug Johnson.) On many mornings his parents would go into his room to awaken him for school, only to find that he was already up and on the schoolyard courts. "People thought 1 was crazy," he says. "They really, seriously did. It would be 7:30 and they'd be going to work, and they'd say, 'There's that crazy June Bug, hoopin'.' "
After leading his high school team to the state championship, Johnson chose to stay close to home by enrolling at Michigan State, arriving with his legend and his game already full-blown. After Magic led the Spartans to the NCAA championship in his sophomore season, defeating Bird's Indiana State team 75-64 in the final game, he turned pro, despite the opinion of one genius after another that he couldn't shoot. "I couldn't understand it when they started saying he can't shoot," says Earvin Sr. "When he was at Everett, that's practically all the boy did."