Sportswriter Roland Lazenby’s new biography of Earvin “Magic” Johnson reminded me of one of the best pieces of journalism ever written, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” In 1966, Gay Talese, on assignment for Esquire magazine, wrote a major profile of the Rat Pack legend without ever talking to him, instead opting to talk to his friends.
The problem was simple: Sinatra had a cold and didn’t feel like talking to anyone, let alone a journalist. The resulting article became a classic in the evolving New Journalism movement.
When Lazenby set out to write the more than 800-page biography, simply titled “Magic,” he was led to believe he would be able to sit down with Johnson for an interview.
It never happened. In this instance, Johnson may not have had a cold, but he definitely gave Lazenby the cold shoulder, requiring him to interview “proxies,” as the author calls them. In Lansing, that list was all-encompassing and included Johnson’s high school basketball coaches, George Fox and Pat Holland; his confidant and friend Dr. Charles Tucker; his fifth-grade teacher, Greta Dart; and a host of others.
For local readers, the most salient portion of the book will likely be the first 300 pages, which follow Johnson through his formative years in Lansing, culminating in the Michigan State University men’s basketball team’s first NCAA championship win in 1979. Johnson was named Most Outstanding Player of the game.
In addition to highlighting Johnson’s efforts on the basketball courts, Lazenby details the racial animus that was present in Lansing while Johnson was growing up, especially as it relates to the controversial busing of children to help break discrimination patterns in Lansing schools. As a side note, the busing situation ultimately ended with Johnson going across town to Everett High School, rather than his preferred choice, Sexton High School.
The author doesn’t duck some of the tougher times, like when Fox and Holland dismissed five Black players from the basketball team two years before Johnson began playing at Everett. Included was Larry Johnson, his older brother, and because of that, he made an ultimately short-lived vow to never play for Everett.
Lazenby also does a formidable job detailing how Johnson helped galvanize the community through his immense skill and personality. Games were not just sold out, they were mesmerizing and were frequently moved to larger venues, including the Don Johnson Fieldhouse and MSU’s Jenison Field House, to accommodate massive crowds.
During Johnson’s tenure at Everett, the basketball team went to the state finals three times and barely escaped with a win in his senior year, when Jamie Huffman hit five three throws to close out the game, according to Lazenby.
Everyone wanted to watch the tall kid with the beautiful smile play as a shooting guard. In one funny interview, Fox admits he had an eye on Johnson to play as center. Big guys just didn’t bring the ball down the court, but Johnson did, and he could do things with the ball that others, at any level, had not mastered.
According to interviews with Tucker and others, Johnson was able to hold his own against some of the best college players around, including Terry Furlow, who still holds MSU’s single-game scoring record. (Due to arcane rules, Furlow, despite being one of the best players to ever dribble for MSU, can’t have his number retired.)
Lazenby said, “Writing this book, I almost felt like an archaeologist.”
He was able to trace the genealogical history of Johnson’s maternal and fraternal great-great-great-great grandparents to the exact plantations in North Carolina where they were slaves.
He also interviewed contemporaries of Johnson, including two of Fox’s children, Missy Payne and Gary Fox. In doing that, he learned about the famous bike ride Johnson made to Fox’s home in the pretty much all-white neighborhood of Waverly nearby.
According to Payne, Johnson rode over to her family home one day and began shooting baskets in the driveway. It was a breakthrough moment in the relationship between Johnson and his coach, according to Lazenby.
The author said he came into the project with no opinions about Lansing but came away thinking, “The community is a sweet story.”
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