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Tomorrow's Leaders Have That Magic Touch

The Inside Track | J.A. Adande

July 31, 2004|J.A. Adande

Quite an impressive group of all-stars Magic Johnson brought together for his annual "Midsummer Night's Magic."

The players? They're not bad, either.

It's just hard to have any breath left to discuss them after spending time with the recipients of the Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program, the beneficiaries of this festival of ballgames, banquets and parties.

Listen to their stellar academic accomplishments and it makes you want to go home, take your own diploma off the wall and hide it in a drawer.

See their confidence in the middle of a corporate schmoozing environment, hear their bright hopes for the future, envision them running the world about 20 years from now and, as Johnson said, "You're blown away."

It's as impressive as the growth of this event itself. What started 19 years ago as a ballgame now includes a weeklong leadership conference for the scholarship winners, a black-tie dinner, a children's Mardi Gras day at a park and a swank themed party. It's all capped by the celebrity and all-star game itself, featuring Baron Davis and Paul Pierce on Sunday at the Forum.

The original beneficiary was the United Negro College Fund. After Michaels, the chief operating officer of the Magic Johnson Enterprises, died in 1997, Johnson gave the proceeds from his charity game to the scholarship program created in her honor.

Among the 16 members of the most recent class of scholars at a mixer in Johnson's backyard Thursday night were graduates from MIT and UCLA -- and those are a brother and sister from one family. One man was a triple major at Columbia. You had a preacher, a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, on and on.

The lessons continue, even out of school. If there's one thing the students learned early on, it's that they wouldn't have to go through the challenges of college -- the pressure of midterms, the loneliness of being away from home -- on their own. Taylor Michaels Scholarship winners get more than financial support, they get a network, even if it means that Kawanna Brown, president of the Magic Johnson Foundation, has to drive them to campus and help them register. Each student gets a laptop computer, they are assigned a mentor and they get internships with sponsor companies. Plus, there's the Magic touch.

"The thing about Magic Johnson is he's really good and gives you a lot of confidence," said Juan Herrera, an electrical engineering major at UC Davis. "When someone like Magic Johnson believes in you, it's really easy to believe in yourself. It gave me a lot of confidence. Especially when I was going through an environment that I didn't know, and I wasn't prepared for, knowing that people were behind me and helping me no matter what, that gave me the strength to move on."

They all speak with so much confidence now that it's hard to imagine them ever wavering. But didn't we all after that initial rush of college wore off and we realized this was going to be a lot harder than we imagined? Amber Johns, a 2003 Azusa Pacific graduate, told Johnson that she was ready to drop out after her sophomore year

"Magic pulled me in front of everybody and said, 'This young lady wants to drop out of school,' " Johns said. "I had all kinds of people coming up to me and saying, 'You've got to stay in school.' After a while, I was so embarrassed, I just stayed. And I'm so glad I did."

Johnson always initiates the scholarship winners by letting them know that failure is not an option.

"We have not lost one student," Johnson said.

One of the beneficiaries of Michaels' legacy is her nephew, Jeff Mixon.

"It reflects her passion for young people, it reflects her passion for understanding the importance of education in today's society," said Mixon, who majored in ancient Biblical languages at The Master's College. "People are able to get along a lot further in life when they go to an institution that will give them the skills and the tools to be successful in whatever their craft is."

With opportunity comes a sense of duty.

"We also carry a little bit of that weight," said Joaquin Alvarado, who majored in political economics and Latin American studies at UC Santa Cruz. "We're the ones who got sent into college and we're the ones doing the work to get that degree."

So now Alvarado, Mixon, Johns and Herrera can follow along the path set by Taylor Michaels, can take out of the event that was built over the years by Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Byron Scott, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and LeBron James.

Johnson still takes pride in the five championships he won with the Lakers in the 1980s, but not as much as the diplomas granted or awaiting the 200 participants involved or still coming through the program.

"It's a different feeling," Johnson said. "Now I'm not playing, now I'm affecting someone's life for-ev-er. Forever. Even when I'm dead, they will remember what has happened here. And all we ask them to do is help somebody else."

Johns said that Johnson "has raised our level of consciousness in terms of what we have to offer the world and what we can expect from the world.

"Being born and raised in Inglewood, you don't see too many people bringing you around the celebrities and the highly professional minority people. It gave us a real appreciation for the foundation, really huge on giving back to the community. So we all know that once we grow up and have this huge network of scholarship recipients, we're all going to be great. But in our greatness, we all know that we have to give back. Wherever we're from we have to go back and try to make a difference in someone's life."

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.

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