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"I have goals," he says. But where any other NBA player would rattle off point and assist totals, Magic delivers big-business numbers. "I want to be in that $100-$200 million range," he says, "which is what you basically got to have." Huh? For what? A house bigger than his 13,500-square-foot compound? A Forum starter kit?
"For a franchise," he says. "And it doesn't have to be the Lakers, it doesn't even have to be an NBA team. I'm a sports fan. If baseball became available before basketball, I'd be right there. I want to do big business."
Not many athletes have accomplished that kind of crossover, and none in the way that Magic envisions. But Magic has been quietly preparing for this over the last five years, methodically establishing contacts and support groups, adopting mentors, getting a kind of courtside M.B.A. All those Hollywood lawyers and movie producers who get their mugs on TV at Laker games? The guys who adopt these physical phenoms as celebrity pets? Magic has milked them for everything they know. How calculating is this guy? He conducts an executive basketball camp in Maui, $5,500 for each jaded tycoon with a basketball jones. The joke of it is, Magic ought to be paying them; as they gather with their hero after practice, they're unwittingly giving Magic a businessman's deluxe seminar, on their tab. "Oh, I learn a lot at those," says Magic.
Joe Smith, the president and chief executive officer of Capitol-EMI Records, is one of those Forum floor-seat guys who has happily been exploited by Magic. An avid fan, he took Magic under his wing in 1987, inquired of his finances and—free of charge, says Smith—helped Magic restructure that 25-year, $25 million Laker contract that seemed so super in 1981. After Smith saw to it that Magic's paycheck was fattened, Buss reminded Smith that he could take away his floor seat anytime. "Of 128 seats out there," Smith reminded Buss, "96 belong to lawyers. So if you want to deal with them instead...." Buss laughed, of course. Ever since, Smith has been another of those business heroes for Magic, which is sometimes as disconcerting to Smith as it is to Buss.
"We'll be having dinner, and I'll look over at Magic and I've got to stop myself," says Smith. "He's just drinking in everything. I say, 'Wait a second, I didn't write the book on this thing.' "
Smith is amused by Magic's nearly naked ambitions. "He admires success," Smith says. "I remember he came to my house, and I have a real impressive house I bought 19 years ago in Beverly Hills, and he was just knocked out, looking at everything in the house, even furniture. He's impressed by those kinds of things. In a good way. He aspires to them. We ran into each other coming off MGM flights and I told him, 'Hey, you're flying MGM,' and he says, 'Yeah, but you own the airplane. I only fly on it.' He wants to be an industrialist, a conglomerate."
But if Magic does become a business force, it won't be entirely because of guys like Smith. He has some ideas of his own. Like Magic Johnson T's, an official licensee of the NBA. Last year, with help from his agent, Lon Rosen, Magic obtained an NBA license to market T-shirts. Then he got one from the NFL, and he expects to be marketing major league baseball and hockey shirts soon. His company has become one of the fastest-growing in NBA history; after one year it's the No. 7 company in NBA sports apparel.
Magic approves everything, from poses to colors, and goes over the numbers regularly. It's work, but to him it's much easier money than he makes playing basketball. "I'm surprised that no other athlete did it before me," Magic says. "As hot as the NBA is, the way ratings are going up, there's a lot of money out there. The money some of my competitors make...." Those big eyes show dollar signs, just as in the cartoons.
The other good thing about this particular business is that if Jordan shirts outsell Magic shirts, the entrepreneur is still allowed his comfort. Magic wins either way.
But the T-shirt biz was an inbounds pass compared to the slam-dunk Pepsi deal Magic signed in June. No active athlete has ever approached an investment of this magnitude. "I thought the licensing deal was big," Magic says. "Then when you hold it up to Pepsi, it's not quite as large. You have to sit back and laugh."