Magic Johnson offers more than a smile to Josh Harris’ Commanders bid

Magic Johnson offers more than a smile to Josh Harris' Commanders bid

Magic Johnson possesses more than a megawatt smile and a belly laugh that reminds you of your favorite uncle. The twists and turns in his story continue to amaze and inspire us: He was the preternatural basketball phenom from Lansing, Mich., and the 6-foot-9 point guard who revolutionized the NBA. Then, shockingly and sadly for the generation of ’80s babies who grew up enchanted by his Showtime Lakers, he was forced into retirement too soon by an HIV diagnosis. Now he is a successful entrepreneur who has written an even greater second act through Magic Johnson Enterprises and all its partnerships.

His story ends with something even better than a happily ever after because his story is true. That is why his business savvy, not simply his Black skin, should make him a worthy partner in the next ownership team of the Washington Commanders.

On Thursday, Josh Harris, along with his group of investors, reached a provisional deal with Daniel Snyder to buy the Commanders for $6.05 billion — a seismic event felt across the sports landscape because it would be the highest purchase price in the history of American sports but most noticeably here in the D.C. area, where fans would no longer have to sacrifice their decency to root for a franchise Snyder has covered in slime for two decades.

And the group that’s primed to rescue the once-great franchise would do so with a little Magic. No one has shared publicly how much Johnson has contributed to the pot, but he’s already a minority owner in three other leagues, and projections across the internet have his net worth exceeding $600 million. In whatever capacity Johnson has with the group, his value comes with more than that winning smile and hearty laugh.

For those of us rooting for progress, we will always applaud the minority man or woman who earns a seat at the table. Just the presence alone — a person of color in the owner’s box — provides proof that it can be done. But though we may be cheering, we’re also simultaneously trying to shush the cynical voice buried inside us. It can’t help but whisper deeply rooted skepticism over the intentions of the wealthy and White associates.

Will Johnson’s tertiary (or less) stake in the ownership group give him a significant role in securing a new stadium? Or will the majority owners treat him as a token celebrity-on-call to turn on the charm when meeting with local officials?

Will Johnson’s trailblazing as an investor in movie theaters and coffee shops in underserved communities be respected? Or will they just open a concession kiosk inside FedEx Field, slap a sparkling “Magic Johnson” sign over it and highlight that as his influence in the community?

At its most basic, the question is this: Will Johnson have a voice? Or is he here just for his familiar and friendly face? Will the famous Black man be more than another check mark for the NFL, which crows about its seedlings of diversity even though its good ol’ boys structure remains impenetrable?

For Johnson’s affiliation with the Harris group to count as more than an optical flourish, he needs to carry some influence. And during his April 4 appearance on “Today,” Johnson made it sound as if he would. With the cameras rolling and the morning show crew slathering on the praise, Johnson confirmed his involvement with the group: “Yes, our bid is in.”

While towering over the television personalities yet fitting right in, Johnson bent over in laughter at times. All these years later, his charm remains undefeated. At other times, Johnson turned serious, his voice settling into a sentimental tone, as he reflected on the impact of the potential purchase. The man knows how to regale his audience with a good story.

“I’ve gotten a [championship] ring in every sport, but I need a Super Bowl ring. And I would love to be the owner of the Commanders,” the 63-year-old said. “To do not only great work on the field but the work we could do with the city. I think that if they bless us … with the opportunity to be an owner, it would be an emotional day for me. My father just died, so it would be a great moment for the Johnson family — as well as Josh Harris, who is the lead partner in this. To take that franchise and take it to another level, so I’m excited about it.”

“And,” Johnson added, “another African American owner.”

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If his group’s bid gets approved, the sale would mark a full-circle moment for Johnson. In 1965, a wealthy businessman named Jack Kent Cooke purchased the Lakers for $5.175 million. He was a smart salesman, a visionary ahead of his time and also a big jerk who enjoyed humiliating his employees.

According to Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime,” which chronicles the rise and fall of the Lakers’ dynasty in the 1980s, Cooke would degrade female employees by demanding they “twirl in his presence, all the while standing to the side and critiquing their wardrobes and physical condition.” (A gross man drunk on power — sound familiar?) By 1979, Cooke was forced to sell the Lakers and the NHL’s Kings to help pay for a pricey divorce settlement.

But another reason Cooke sold his Los Angeles teams? He wanted to focus on his other team, then known as the Washington Redskins. His last great act as the Lakers’ owner was deciding to draft a sophomore point guard out of Michigan State, Earvin Johnson Jr.

From NBA rookie to NFL owner. A magical plot twist, indeed.

Johnson would be joining a league that welcomed its first person of color in the ownership ranks in 1995 when former NFL safety Deron Cherry became a limited partner with the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars. For women, the elevation to the top has moved much slower. Though the Miami Dolphins have a cabinet of “celebrity owners” such as Gloria Estefan and Fergie, Stephen Ross remains the one with all the power. However, Mellody Hobson and Condoleezza Rice made history last year with the Denver Broncos when they became the first Black women with a minority ownership stake in an NFL franchise.

“This is a big deal. This is history. I think it’s gone over people’s heads a little bit,” Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said last summer. “It’s news. It’s a tremendous representation for minorities but Blacks in particular.”

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An even greater significance than their names appearing on a news release would be Hobson and Rice making a real impact in the team’s power structure. So it was nice seeing how Rice was positioned between new coach Sean Payton and Broncos CEO and principal owner Greg Penner for photo ops during the introductory news conference. It’s better knowing that Rice played a part in the interviewing process to land Payton.

So here’s to Magic being more like Condi and less like Fergie. Here’s hoping that his seat at the table isn’t ceremonial but that his voice carries weight in shaping the franchise. True, he didn’t show the tenacity and temperance of a great executive when he ran the Lakers. After just two seasons as the team’s president of basketball operations, Johnson resigned.

Day-to-day decision-making may not be his preferred role, but the business world is his court now. Johnson’s life after sports should serve as the north star for every ex-athlete. Hopefully this new ownership group recognizes Johnson’s ability, not just his name. Representation should be the first step but not the last.

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