On Thursday afternoon in downtown Phoenix, hundreds of local business leaders filed into Chase Field, as they always do this time of year. The occasion was the Tee-Off Luncheon for the Waste Management Phoenix Open, an event that was headlined a year ago by Chris Paul and Devin Booker. If there was a way to top that duo, the Thunderbirds — the tournament’s organizers — managed it on Thursday, when Magic Johnson spoke for the assembled crowd.
Johnson was interviewed by Michael Wilbon, the ESPN personality and long-time host of Pardon the Interruption. Before they got underway, Johnson made a brief play to the hometown crowd.
“I've gotta quickly thank the Diamondbacks for the season that they had — congratulate them,” Johnson said. “They beat my Dodgers, but also went all the way to the World Series. We should clap for that cause that's your team. What a run.”
Johnson’s many sports ventures were a repeated topic of conversation. Beyond his ownership stake in the Dodgers, he is a co-owner of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, MLS’ Los Angeles FC and, as of this summer, the NFL’s Washington Commanders.
Johnson, though, wanted to emphasize why he was on stage Thursday.
Magic Johnson's 'why'
“My whole mission in life is to continue to make a difference,” Johnson said.
In the Phoenix Open, he sees a group with a similar ambition. Over the course of last year’s tournament, the Thunderbirds raised $14.5 million for Arizona charities.
“That's what I'm all about,” Johnson said. “I want to continue to help people, especially in urban America. Those who are poor in the inner cities of America. The scholarships that we already do, the job fairs, health fairs, on and on and on. And I think for me, that's the most important thing. How can I make communities better, just like all of you are doing.”
This, Johnson said, has been a focus of his since he was a rookie with the Lakers, when he met with local business leaders in Los Angeles who helped him shape his perspectives beyond basketball. Since retiring nearly three decades ago, Johnson has turned his focus to Magic Johnson Enterprises, his investment company.
Still, basketball remains a central part of Johnson’s life. On Thursday, Wilbon asked Johnson about the modern NBA, in the context of recent comments from Tom Brady criticizing the state of the NFL.
“You have guys like Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and (Devin) Booker who can really shoot from the 3-point line. So the game is different in that aspect,” Johnson said. “But it's still a beautiful game. So do older guys like the way the game is played today? Of course they don't. We're gonna have a different opinion because of the style that we had to play and endure vs. what they do today. But I love basketball.”
What Magic likes about where the game is headed
Johnson highlighted two changes in recent years: The growth of the women’s game and the infusion of international players into the NBA.
“The (women’s) college game is outstanding right now,” Johnson said. “You watch women's college basketball today and it is amazing. So I watch probably just as much women's college basketball as I watch men's college basketball. But the game is growing. What I like about today's game, international players have made it a global game and we have some great international stars.”
Johnson also touched on his stake in the Commanders. Johnson is part of an ownership group led by Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris. The group purchased the team in July for over $6 billion, the highest price ever paid for a North American professional sports team.
“We've gotta build it,” Johnson said. “This is a three, four, five year plan. We're not going to win overnight and we knew that. We knew what we were getting into when we bought the team. So we just have to build it and build it the right way. Just like the Dodgers. When we took over the Dodgers, it was a similar situation and we had to build the farm system up. We were able to do that and then we built the team on the field into a winning team. But it takes time. It doesn't happen overnight.”
There was a sport conspicuously absent from Wilbon and Johnson’s conversation — golf. Although Johnson said he is a fan of the game, he has never picked it up himself. On Thursday, he joked about why.
“We were on vacation in Hawaii,” Johnson said. “So I'm sitting next to my wife and the other couples, all the guys had their golf stuff on, getting ready to go to the golf course. So all the guys leave, now I'm sitting next to four other women beside my wife. So they go to the golf course and my wife hits me and says, ‘You need to pick up golf so you can go with the guys.’
“I said, ‘Okay. Now you know who I am. So if I pick up golf, you know what's going to happen. I'm not going to be standing by and not be trying to be good and great at it. So that means I'm going to be playing golf seven days a week. So you want me at this lawn chair next to you or you want me on that course every single day and taking time away from you? Make up your mind right now, you've got five minutes.’”
“She looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, you better stay here.’”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Magic Johnson talks basketball, business at Phoenix Open luncheon