As basketball legends go, Earvin “Magic” Johnson has a relatively untarnished record. Not just on the court — where he famously led the LA Lakers to five national championships — but also in his personal life. Unlike a lot of his peers, his name doesn’t immediately bring to mind cringe-worthy lowlights. He never retired from a three-peat NBA championship team to play minor league baseball for the Scottsdale Scorpions, for instance. Or wrote a book about how he’d slept with 20,000 women. Or starred in a movie called Kazaam. Not that he’s avoided blunders entirely. There was The Magic Hour, his short-lived stint as a terrible talk show host. And of course his shocking announcement in 1991 that he was HIV positive. But he never played the victim or tried to pretend that early retirement was all part of his master plan. He was always humble and remorseful, and went on to create the Magic Johnson Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes HIV/AIDS education and prevention. It’s not like Michael Jordan is out there atoning for his sins, spearheading a “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead Because of Your Massive Ego” campaign aimed at the nation’s youth.
I called Johnson to talk about his new commercials for Dove, which will be airing throughout March Madness. But really, I called to ask about the recent announcement that plots are afoot for a Broadway play based on the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry — which, barring some Spider-Man-style setbacks, will open on the Great White Way sometime in 2012.
Eric Spitznagel: I wasn’t expecting to like your Dove commercials. Every time an athlete plugs a product, it’s hard not to see dollar signs in their eyes. But these spots are refreshingly non-god-awful.
Magic Johnson: Yeah, yeah, thanks. It’s the kind of campaign that I love because I got to talk about my journey in life and what’s really made me the man I am today. I think that’s why it’s authentic, and why it’s real. I used Dove even before they came to me. Because I love it so much. I love the body wash and the deodorant.
But that’s not the lasting impression I get. I don’t walk away from these commercials thinking, “I need to get me some Dove body wash.” I’m thinking, “Magic Johnson used to have an afro and wore a burgundy crushed velvet coat. What a pimptastic badass!”
[Laughs.] I love that! Yeah, sure, when you think of me, think of the afro and the velvet coat. But that’s why Dove did it right. They had me and Bobby (Hurley) and Coach (John) Thompson talk about our experiences in life and what made us comfortable in our own skin. It wasn’t just about soap, which is what made it memorable.
Did you know in advance what you were going to talk about, or did they just point a camera at you and let you improvise?
They let me do my thing. It was never scripted or anything. They just asked me to talk about my life and what my dad meant to me. It was just me talking about how I grew up and became Magic Johnson, basically.
That could’ve backfired. You might’ve inadvertently dredged up some repressed memories. Did you worry that you might blurt out something like, “And then there was that time Jack Nicholson broke into my house?”
[Laughs.] I wish Jack had broken into my house! That would’ve been great.
Since your retirement, do you ever still see him in the corner of your eye?
Yeah. It seemed like he was at every game when you played for the Lakers. That kind of obsessive, mildly creepy devotion doesn’t just go away, does it?
Well first of all, Jack has always been a friend. When Larry (Bird) and I made that Courtship of Rivals documentary for HBO, we had this big premiere screening in Los Angeles, with a red carpet and all kinds of celebrities, and Jack showed up for it. That’s the type of guy he is. He’ll always be there for you. But on the other side, he’s a super, super fan. Outside of the Staples Center, he’s very approachable. But don’t bother him during a Laker game. Because he gets intense. Try to talk to him when a game is happening and he’ll give you that look from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I’m not familiar with that look. Is it similar to his crazy “Here’s Johnny” face from The Shining?
Yeah, yeah! He does all of those. And let me tell you, those are some scary looks. You know what I really love about him? He doesn’t call me Magic, and he doesn’t call me Earvin. He calls me Buck.
Buck? I’m not familiar with that. Is it a compliment?
It’s absolutely a compliment! When I was first drafted by the Lakers, my teammates used to call me Young Buck, because I was the youngest player on the team. I was only twenty years old. For a while it was “Young Buck,” but pretty soon they cut it down to just “Buck.” Well, guess what Jack calls me, even today? He says, “How you doin’, Buck? What’s happening, Buck? How you feeling, Buck?” That makes me happy.
It just leaked that there’s a Broadway play in the works about your friendship and rivalry with Larry Bird. Are you involved with it at all?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s funny you brought it up, because I just met with the writer today.
Eric Simonson, right? The playwright who did the Lombardi play?
Yeah, that’s the guy. He’s starting to work on our script, so I met with him today for a few hours so he could listen to my voice and get it right. I also told him stories about Larry and I, about our friendship and playing against each other. I’m really excited about it and I can’t wait to see it. But I’m also a control freak.
It’s nice that you can admit it.
Oh yeah, I wouldn’t let them do this play if I didn’t have a say-so. I definitely need to read the finished script. Both Larry and I are gonna read it and we both have to be happy about it before anything else happens. As you know, Larry is very guarded. He wants to make sure it’s right as well.
It’s probably way too soon to speculate, but is there a chance that at some point during the play, the Magic and Larry characters sing “Ebony and Ivory” to each other?
That would be real cool. You know what? I’m gonna write that down. That’s a great idea. And hopefully we can get those two guys, the guys who recorded it, to sing it in the background. Stevie and what’s his name. The guy from the Beatles.
Yeah, yeah. We need to get him.
Would you settle for Ringo?
Naw. We got to do this right. If they can sing it in the orchestra pit, maybe we can get the Larry and Magic characters to lip-sync it.
How do you tell this story on stage? What are the pivotal moments from your history with Larry that’ll end up in the play?
Well, one scene that’s gotta go in there is when Larry and I really started talking. We were fierce competitors, but the first time we shot a commercial together, back in 1984, I went to his hometown of French Lick, Indiana. Before that, we never said more than hello to each other. So we’re down there, doing a commercial for Converse, and he invites me to his trailer for lunch. We start talking, and he tells me about his life and his upbringing and everything else. That day was the breakthrough for us becoming friends. I’m sure they’re going to have that scene in there, because that’s when I really understood who Larry Bird was as a man, not just as a basketball player. And the same thing for him. He knew who Earvin Johnson was.
What about basketball? Is there one iconic basketball game that needs to be duplicated in the Broadway show?
I would say that’s when I hit the last second hook shot against Boston in game 4 in the ‘87 NBA Finals, sending us up 3:1.
You’re talking about your “junior, junior sky-hook,” right?
Yeah, that’s the one. If I could just do that again, or watch somebody else do it on a Broadway stage, that would be great.
I think a lot of NBA fans would like to see it done again. But this may be the first time they see it done with jazz hands.
[Laughs.] Exactly, yeah, exactly. We want to make it fun. That’s what we keep stressing. We want it to be fun and exciting, even if you didn’t watch the original games.
A Broadway production about NBA basketball stars is probably going to involve some aerial technical stunts. Any chance of getting Julie Taymor involved as director?
[Laughs.] I don’t know about that!
I hear she’s available.
I don’t want anybody flying through the air and getting hurt like in the Spider-Man play. And when I heard about how much that show has cost already, which I think is about $55 million, I was like, “Whoooa!” We have to learn from their mistakes. I hope the Magic/Larry play comes in under budget and nobody gets hurt and everybody has some fun.
Do you have any say in casting? Do you already have an actor in mind to play you?
I’m going to leave that up to the producers, because they know the acting side of it. I have some favorite actors, but that doesn’t mean they can handle the role. The people involved in this show know Broadway, and they know which actors do certain things well. I have no idea about that kind of stuff. It’s not just about looking like me, they also have to do the singing and the acting and everything else.
They’ve got to be able to sing “Ebony and Ivory” while doing a junior, junior sky-hook.
[Laughs.] Exactly. I don’t know how to choose somebody for that job. I have no idea. I’m going to let them make the decisions because that’s what they do.
Here’s a random and admittedly weird question. You know the five statues that stand outside Staples Center?
Oh yeah, sure. They’re great.
There’s you and Wayne Gretzky and Oscar De La Hoya and Chick Hearn and Jerry West. Now let’s say, hypothetically, there’s some kind of Night at the Museum situation. The statues come to life at night and interact with each other. What kind of athletic competition takes place?
[Long pause.] That’s a great question. Well, I think the first thing they’d do is probably shoot some hoops.
They’d play basketball? But isn’t that discriminatory? Only two of the statues actually have skills in that area.
Well yeah, but here’s the thing. One of the great things about basketball is that anybody can play it. It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, you know how to play the game. Anybody can play basketball. But everybody can’t play hockey. Everybody can’t box. So here’s how I think this plays out. The statues come to life…
Okay, so far this makes perfect sense.
And they break into teams. I’m thinking there’s Jerry and Oscar on one team, and I take Wayne Gretzky for my team.
You don’t take the other Laker? You let Oscar have Jerry West?
We have to make it fair.
What about Chick Hearn?
He calls the play-by-play.
It’s what he did best. Even the bronze version of him.
Right, exactly. And then it’s a two-on-two stand-off. It’d be an incredible half-court basketball game.
Back in the real world, you haven’t played basketball professionally since 1996. When was the last time you just shot some hoops or played a friendly game of one-on-one?
The last time I played a real game was probably at Kevin Costner’s 50th birthday. It was a pickup game and Tiger Woods was there and all these actors. It was a lotta fun. But that’s probably it. When you get older, the only thing you have the energy to play anymore is HORSE.
What’s your HORSE strategy?
What I do is, I take my first shot as close as I can, because I want a good look at how the other guy shoots a basketball. So all of my shots will be close to the basket. And as the game gets going, I’ll move a little further and a little further away each time. I don’t do all the trick shots until later in the game. I like to catch ‘em by surprise.
You once said there are only two ways you know how to play basketball: “reckless and abandon.” Is that pretty much your HORSE philosophy too?
Oh yeah, no question about it. Whatever it takes to win. I don’t care what game it is, or how casual it might be, I always have to win at everything.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)