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Could It Be Magic?

From humble beginnings in Lansing, Mich., Earvin Johnson went on to an NCAA championship and led the Lakers to five NBA titles. Today he will take his place in the Hall of Fame.

June 05, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANSING, Mich — Before Magic, there was June Bug. Before the Lakers or the Michigan State Spartans, there were the Main Street School and the Everett High Vikings. Before Pat Riley or Jud Heathcote, there were Jim Dart and George Fox.

And before Hollywood or Inglewood, there was Lansing.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is expected to be elected to the basketball Hall of Fame today for his memorable career with the Lakers. In the world of professional sports, too often tarnished by cynicism and greed, Johnson's big smile and overflowing enthusiasm were refreshing changes. In the world of professional basketball, his ability to play like a point guard in the body of a 6-foot-9 forward was a revelation.

But not in Lansing. The people of Johnson's hometown had seen his act for years. They had watched little June Bug Johnson dribble a ball down to the store with his right hand and dribble it back with his left. They had listened over and over to his dreams of dribbling from small town America all the way to the hallowed courts of the NBA.

They are not surprised that this journey is ending at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. They know how it all began.

A Tot and His Dot

Johnson grew up in the heartland of America, on Main Street, USA. Literally. There was plenty of family around, plenty of friends, plenty of love. Earvin Johnson Sr. and wife Christine have been married for 44 years. They brought up nine kids--Magic is the fourth-youngest--and have 23 grandchildren.

They certainly weren't able to provide their family the kind of luxury Magic has enjoyed through his adult life but nobody left the Johnson table hungry, or went out into the Michigan winter improperly clothed.

It wasn't easy. The family was crammed into a two-story, three-bedroom house on Main Street in a tree-lined, middle-class neighborhood, boys in one room, girls in another.

Lansing, the state capital, is a company town. The two major employers of this community of 447,000 are the state government and Michigan State University, but close behind is General Motors. Earvin worked on the assembly line for the automotive giant. But, needing a second job to support his brood, he also worked at a service station and later had a trash-collection business. He would come home exhausted in the middle of the night, slip into the bathtub to ease his aching bones and sometimes fall asleep there, never making it to bed. Christine worked for the school system as a lunch-room supervisor.

Seeing how hard his parents labored, Earvin Jr.--the Junior evolved into June Bug--would tell his father, "Dad, someday I'm going to take care of you and Momma."

From his mother came the communication skills. It is eerie how much Magic resembles Christine, from the warm smile to the expressive hand gestures to the receptive eyes.

Earvin is quieter, but he obviously passed on his resolve to succeed and positive attitude to his son.

Just as important, he passed on his love of basketball.

Regardless of Earvin Sr.'s work schedule, there was always time for basketball. He and his sons would watch the NBA game of the week every Sunday, the father pointing out the subtleties of the game, subtleties he had learned as a high school basketball player in his native Mississippi.

"We girls sometimes wanted to watch something else," said Magic's sister, Pearl. "But there was only one TV and the men ruled."

Besides the televised games, there were basketball wars on the playground down the street between Earvin and June Bug.

"We didn't have a basket in our driveway because we were too poor to afford one," Earvin said.

He showed his son no mercy on the court. There was liberal fouling either way. If June Bug wanted to beat his father, which he desperately did, he was just going to have to get better.

He worked at it. Christine would awaken at 6:30 a.m. to get the kids ready for school, only to find June Bug's bed empty. He was already down at the Main Street School, shooting hoops before class.

At home, he made a dot on the wall with a pencil, used a folded pair of his father's socks as a makeshift ball, and fired away for hours at that dot, his make-believe basket, all the while doing running commentary in which, of course, June Bug Johnson was the star of the game.

When he tired of that, he would open the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, grab some socks and shoot baskets, moving down a step at a time to increase the difficulty.

"That was his life," Pearl said.

So didn't this kid ever get into trouble? Well, there was the time in his preteens when June Bug came home with candy in his pocket.

"I knew he had no money," Earvin said. "I made him take it back to the store."

And then he made June Bug pull a switch off a nearby tree for his subsequent spanking.

But mostly, there were good times.

"You'd be sitting up in the house on Main Street, and you could hear that big, jolly laugh of his as he came down the block," said Pearl of her brother. "It's the same laugh he has today.

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