THOUSAND OAKS — Magic Johnson says his annual basketball camp is about much more than just shooting hoops. It's also about being away from home, growing up, learning about different people and making friends.
It seemed like the former Los Angeles Laker, a three-time NBA Finals MVP and future hall-of-famer, was having as much fun as the campers Wednesday, the fourth day of the five-day camp at Cal Lutheran University.
"I get gratification from this because I get to touch their lives inside and outside of basketball," Johnson said of the camp he has sponsored and coached for 16 years. "I get to see them over the years turn into mature men and women."
That's not to say they don't play basketball. Rest assured, they play a lot.
"We play basketball from 8 a.m. until about 9 at night, and then there's not a lot of time left before we go to bed," said Andy Gagle, a 14-year-old power forward from Indiana who has been coming to the camp for four years.
"We like to keep them constantly moving," Johnson said as his eyes lit up and he flashed his famously broad smile. "A lot of times they forget to call their parents because they're so tired and they're having so much fun."
Johnson said some youngsters return year after year to the camp, which annually attracts about 500 boys and girls worldwide.
"We have 50 or 60 Japanese kids that have come back for the last few years and it's just really fun to see the improvement," he said.
Johnson, who attracted international interest in the camp while touring with his traveling all-star team, said the overseas kids' basketball skills, as well as their culture, make the camp more enriching.
"The Japanese kids are extremely disciplined, and that's good for American kids to see," Johnson said. "And they [Japanese campers] come here to play with the best players in the world."
Campers agreed it was fun to play with kids from around the world.
"I like 'em. Especially the French, because they're scrappy under the boards," said 16-year-old Philip Davis, who came to the camp from Tennessee.
In addition to learning about other cultures, Philip said he has improved his skills and will have a leg up on his peers in Tennessee. Other campers agreed that just one week of basketball had sharpened their game.
"I've really improved my teamwork and my dribbling skills," said 15-year-old Houston shooting guard Jeremy Gallegos. Jeremy's friend Robbie Tucker, 14, from Pasadena attributed his improved shot to the number of games played at camp. "We usually play five, half-hour games a day--it's hard to find enough people to do that at home."
Johnson, who tries to play some one-on-one with every camper at some point over the five days, recalled that during his youth playing so many games in one week would have put him in "hog heaven." He admits now, however, that he gets a little worn out by week's end.
"I cut the camp down to one week a couple of years ago, because two weeks is a lot," Johnson said. Unlike most camps held in the name of professional players, Johnson participates in many facets of the camp on a daily basis.
Johnson's efforts include more than teaching basketball fundamentals. He also shares some wisdom about life's harsh realities.
"We talk about drugs, gangs, HIV," Johnson said. "These things are part of everyday life."
According to Johnson, campers develop as people as much as they do as players. "Whether or not they end up playing in the NBA, we want to see them grow up and be good young men and ladies and respect one another."