Magic Johnson recently hosted a brunch at Skirball Cultural Center in honor… (Nico Marks/Magic Johnson…)
Before an attentive crowd, Magic Johnson performed something that Lakers fans have become accustomed to seeing.
Johnson dished. He flashed his signature Magic smile. Johnson brought a championship mind-set.
This time, the setting didn’t take place in the Fabulous Forum. Johnson wasn’t making a beautiful no-look pass. He wasn’t smiling over a clutch shot, such as his junior hook in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. No confetti dropped from the ceiling commemorating the Lakers winning yet another title.
Johnson instead offered a different version of Showtime.
This came in the form of Johnson standing on stage recently at the Skirball Cultural Center where he hosted a brunch honoring 33 members of the Taylor Michaels Scholarship program. Johnson dished it by handing the scholars a bag filled with a digital camera, certificate and notebook to congratulate them for obtaining a bachelor's degree. Johnson flashed his smile when he gushed about the 14-year scholarship program, backed by his foundation, that has supported 423 minority students. He reinforced a championship mind-set when he continuously challenged the students to independently map out their future.
“Yes, we give you the check. Yes, we support you,” Johnson said. “But it’s still going to be up to you. Whatever you want in life, whatever it is, you will have that opportunity and chance.”
In other words, Johnson wants the recipients to have the same approach he did in his storied 13-year NBA career that spanned five championships, three league and Finals MVPs, 12 All-Star appearances and one Olympic gold medal.
He’ll dole out assists by providing laptop computers, scholarships ranging from $1,500 to $5,000 a year, individual mentors and a network of internship and career opportunities. Such assistance, the foundation says, has resulted in more than 80% of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree from schools such as Howard, Morehouse, Brown, USC and UCLA. After Michaels, the chief operating officer of Magic Johnson Enterprises, died in 1998, Johnson named the scholarship program in her honor. The foundation says has provided more than $3.6 million worth of scholarships and laptop computers.
But Johnson also demands the recipients show the same relentlessness that helped him win championships,battle the HIV virus and invest millions into the inner city through his various businesses. Students have to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average to keep their scholarships. Kadar Lewis, a manager with the scholarship program, says he and other mentors check in “multiple times” a year to ensure students haven’t gone astray. The program hosts an annual five-day conference in July. This year at Loyola Marymount University, Johnson had a lengthy question-and-answer session outlining his vision for their future.
“A lot of people asked Magic personal advice on what they should do in college and about their future careers,” said Briana Nerbut, a freshman at Cal Poly Pomona “It was a range of things. He really emphasized that everyone should go through life with no excuses. He gave us really good points for how we should go about college and the rest of our life.”
Johnson boasted, “we haven’t had to drop one yet” and that the program has made a “big impact.” But Marcus Vanderberg, a 2008 graduate from Hofstra University, almost became that exception.
After attending Cal State Northridge from 2001 to 2004, Vanderberg wanted to transfer to Hofstra so he could take advantage of an internship with Sports Illustrated and further pursue a journalism career in a large media market. Vanderberg experienced a few setbacks, though.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive tract. He also struggled finding a party to cosign a $12,000 loan to go to Hofstra. With the foundation’s support, Vanderberg could devote his resources to treating his disease, with Johnson serving as inspiration for how he’s survived having HIV for over 20 years.
“I wouldn’t have the same outlook without Magic being there,” said Vanderberg, a coverage editor at Yahoo! Sports. “There’s been situations where they thought about dropping out of school. He drove it home to stay focused and finish what you started.”