The shady side of Magic Johnson

Let's stipulate up front that Earvin "Magic" Johnson is more than just a transcendent legend of the hardcourt. The five-time NBA champion and two-time league MVP has led a post-basketball life more full than most humans could fathom in ten lifetimes. After he was forced to abruptly retire in 1991 with the shocking announcement he had tested positive for HIV, he built a staggering business empire and raised millions to combat this terrible disease.

Certain Nicki Swift scribes with by-lines on this article may have started their careers with a 5th-grade book report-turned-drooling-hagiography recounting Johnson's rookie year exploits where he led the LA Lakers to the NBA finals. The then baby-faced point guard stepped in for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, scored 42 points, and nabbed 15 rebounds, all on his way to Finals MVP still in his early 20s.

And yet, this article is about the shady side of one Earvin Magic Johnson. We all have a shady side — and certainly anyone in the public eye for as long as Johnson will have left a record of inevitable missteps. Johnson's own memoir is the source for much herein because Magic was always more than a superstar athlete. He's by most accounts a tremendous human being — and a necessary condition for that is self-reflection. This is a complicated and fascinating man. And so yeah, he's got a shady side too.

He accused Isiah Thomas of spreading gay rumors

Magic Johnson and another legendary NBA point guard, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas were bitter rivals on the court during their iconic clashes in two NBA Finals series — Magic took one, Thomas the other. But it was always thought they were the best of friends too. Tom Brady-level kisses they shared seemed to speak of manly mutual respect bordering on brotherly love.

That all ended in 2009 when Johnson accused Thomas in his memoir When the Game Was Ours of spreading rumors he'd contracted HIV through gay and bisexual activity, according to ESPN. Thomas says it isn't true. "I'm really hurt," he told Sports Illustrated (via Newsday). "I really feel taken advantage of for all these years. I'm totally blindsided by this."

Johnson's book also made the claim he had persuaded Madison Square Garden President Steve Mills to give Thomas his job as New York Knicks President in 2004. Thomas didn't like Johnson taking credit for his accomplishments, "It's so hypocritical," he shot back. "There is this public person and then there is this B.S. person. There's Earvin and then there's Magic ... It's just like the line he perpetuated that he got me the Knicks' job ... That's a lie." Fortunately, the two stars had a tearful and moving reconciliation in 2017 — well worth watching if you enjoy the complex perils of masculine intimacy.

He contracted HIV being unfaithful to his future wife

Even though Magic Johnson and Cookie Johnson were newlyweds when he tested positive for HIV in 1991, they had actually met in college and been romantic all the way back to 1977. When Magic broke the news, Cookie was also pregnant with their first child, "we both fell on our knees and we started crying," she told ABC News. But Cookie wasn't crying for herself — she wept for Magic. She says Magic told her he'd understand if she left him. She replied, "Are you kidding me!? No! I love you."

Johnson remembers the exchange similarly, "I started to tell her that I would understand if she ... wanted a divorce, but before I could get most of the words out of my mouth, she slapped me upside the head and said I was crazy ... Marrying her is the smartest thing I've ever done," he wrote in Sports Illustrated that year (via the Los Angeles Times)

But Johnson was such a prolific lover — and cheater — he didn't know when he'd contracted the virus, which put Cookie at risk. "I am certain that I was infected by having unprotected sex with a woman who has the virus," he revealed in Sports Illustrated (via the Los Angeles Times). "The problem is that I can't pinpoint the time, the place or the woman. It's a matter of numbers." Fortunately, both Cookie and their unborn child tested negative for the disease.

Magic Johnson didn't practice safe sex

Maybe it's not exactly a newsflash that an LA Lakers superstar like Magic Johnson back in the libertine late 1980s was a traveling playboy who didn't exactly safeguard his own sexual health — or that of his partners. As he explained in Sports Illustrated (via Los Angeles Times), "Before I was married, I truly lived the bachelor's life. I'm no Wilt Chamberlain, but as I traveled around NBA cities, I was never at a loss for female companionship ...I confess that after I arrived in L.A. in 1979, I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could — most of them through unprotected sex."

After Johnson broke the news of his shocking diagnosis to old-flame-but-new-wife Cookie, Magic went into the bathroom to call his many, many lovers and inform them as well. Cookie was not aware of the scale of Johnson's infidelity and admitted she was shocked how long it took, "Who is he calling? ... why is he in there so long?" she told ABC News host Robin Roberts in 2016.

His wife dumped him for disrespecting her in public

Magic Johnson's diagnosis in 1991 only inspired him to achieve greater heights professionally. Since retiring from basketball, Johnson has become an investment tycoon operating Magic Johnson Enterprises, which has ballooned his net worth to a staggering $600 million. That success though, nearly cost him his marriage in 2001.

Magic's wife Cookie has endured a lot, but one thing she won't abide is public disrespect. Cookie revealed in her memoir Believing in Magic that some of her famous husband's success might've gone to his head. She elaborated to Oprah Winfrey on Supersoul that Magic's relentless schedule and business-related socializing began pulling them apart, and worse, "his ego was getting bigger and bigger ... it all became about work for him."

The issue "came to a head" the night Johnson got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June of 2001. Cookie says at an afterparty full of colleagues, Magic was dancing with other girls. That's normally fine because the couple had always made an effort to come together at these events to connect on the dance floor. However, this time, Cookie revealed to Winfrey that Magic made it clear, "I don't want you dancing with me, I'm dancing with these people over here," she recalled. "That kind of got to me ... I lost it and said some things. Then he said some things." The couple took a tense two-week hiatus but was, fortunately, able to reconcile.

He resigned as Lakers President thanks to in-house drama

Magic Johnson isn't just a Lakers legend as a player; he became President of Lakers Operations in 2017 and was instrumental in luring the biggest free-agent signing imaginable when he brought Lebron James to Tinseltown in 2018. However, Johnson was suddenly pushed out in 2019 under somewhat murky he-said he-said circumstances regarding accusations he was an absentee, do-nothing employee. Magic wasn't initially clear what had happened, expressing his regret in a shocking impromptu announcement, "It's a difficult decision. I cried before I came here," he told ESPN.

But Johnson eventually admitted to First Take what had really gone down — in his opinion at least. Magic felt betrayed by other front-office executives and described himself as the victim of "backstabbing" by the organization. He further intimated it was Lakers GM, Rob Pelinka who had started bad-mouthing his level of commitment. Magic says his connections informed him of the rumors, "Magic, you're not working hard enough, Magic's not in the office ... I didn't like those things being said behind my back," he told ESPN.

Magic says the final straw was when he wanted to fire former Lakers head coach Luke Walton but his authority to make that kind of decision had been removed by the organization. Sidelined and bad-mouthed, he felt it was time to walk.

Magic Johnson was accused of bullying Lakers staff

There's another reason Magic Johnson might've left the Lakers so suddenly in 2019. Six staffers came forward to ESPN, saying Johnson had made a bad impression right off the jump. They claim his my-way-or-the-highway attitude was immediate as he held up a stack of resumes, threatening the jobs of anyone who wasn't getting on board with his vision.

Magic's management style was described by anonymous staffers as "confrontational." He was called a "fear monger" by a member of the training staff. One female executive said she began having panic attacks. A member of the coaching staff claimed, "It was shocking." Another front office staffer confessed, "If you questioned him on anything, his response was always a threatening tone. He used intimidation and bullying as a way of showing authority."

Magic didn't exactly deny the charges admitting, "Now, am I tough? Hell yeah, I am. You work for me, I'm demanding. That's who I am. But at the same time, I'm fair." It seems Lakers' staff beg to differ, and it clearly played a role in his ouster.

He abandoned Lebron James

Whatever you make of Magic Johnson's brief and apparently tumultuous second stint in the Los Angeles Lakers organization, no one can doubt he pulled off the most important team maneuver since signing Shaquille O'Neal in 1996. Johnson used his eminent charm to reel in perhaps the most coveted free agent in history, signing Lebron James to a four-year $153 million contract in 2018 — a move that practically guarantees the Lakers will be viable championship contenders for the first time since their last Finals appearance in 2010.

And yet Magic's sudden departure left him no time to give a heads up to his new superstar signing. James was none too happy. King James admitted on his HBO Sports barbershop talk show Uninterrupted he only found out the Johson was leaving when an assistant whispered the jarring news in his ear during a stretching session.

James was incredulous, recalling, "Man, get the **** out of my face, you bull****ing." He said he checked his phone and was shocked that it was true. "Personally, for me, I came here to be a part of the Lakers organization having a conversion with Magic. So it was weird for him to just be like, 'I'm out of here,' and not even have no like, 'hey Bron, kiss my *** I'm gone,' it wasn't even that," mused a flustered James.

Magic Johnson got sued for transmitting HIV

Magic Johnson may not have been the only one tragically affected by his lustful lifestyle. Johnson was sued for $2 million by a woman named Waymer Moore, claiming she contracted the virus after they had sex in 1990, according to AP. Her suit alleges she did not have any sexual contact for eight months prior to her encounter with Johnson and that she then tested positive in 1991. She contends Magic should have known he was at risk because of his promiscuous lifestyle — which Johnson has since sort of admitted. The suit further alleged emotional distress on Moore's 5-year old daughter.

Moore also wrote a heart-wrenching letter to Johnson pleading with him to take personal responsibility, "Although you did not have the courage to face me, you will one day soon have to account for it," she wrote, according to Newsweek.

Johnson contended he didn't know he had the virus in 1990, and a judge dismissed the case in 1993 at the behest of both parties. The judge had previously ruled against the claim Johnson had committed fraud by failing to disclose his lifestyle, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the reason for the dismissal of the suit as a whole was not revealed, with Johnson's attorney simply saying, ″The parties are going to get on with their lives." Moore's spokesperson wouldn't say if there was a financial settlement but also called the arrangement, "mutual."

His private stewardess said she was fired for being too old

Magic Johnson's business empire also means he's got quite the jet-setting lifestyle, which includes a private plane on the ready with a personal stewardess to attend to his every whim. But Lanita Thomas, who served as Magic's airborne attendant for eight years, contends she was suddenly axed in 2012 — ostensibly for being only 15 minutes late.

Thomas, then 45, filed a lawsuit alleging it was all just a cover to allow a younger woman to dote on Johnson's in-flight demands. The younger woman filled in as Thomas took medical leave in 2010, and upon her return, the suit alleges, Johnson became "less cordial" and "more standoffish and dismissive of her," according to ABC News.

The filing also claims the day that Thomas was fired for her tardiness was actually because she was catering to Johnson's incredibly picky in-flight meal demands including, "two types of specific turkey" for his sandwich. She also says Magic made her hand squeeze his Red Vines licorice "to make sure they were soft" — and that Johnson didn't provide proper meal breaks or compensate her for overtime. Magic called foul to TMZ, claiming, "[Lanita] failed to substantially comply with all directions concerning her employment," and further called the suit "frivolous." The dispute was settled confidentially in 2013. Thomas was purportedly compensated back pay but got no extra sugar for her pains with the red licorice, according to TMZ.

Magic Johnson got busted for tampering

The NBA has a very strict policy about what team execs can and can't say regarding players on other teams who are under contract. Magic Johnson's typically effusive praise of 2018-2019 league MVP and Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo apparently crossed the line — and cost the Lakers $50,000 in 2018.

Some have made comparisons between Johnson and Antetokounmpo because both players are extremely big considering their playmaking and ball-handling ability. But the generally generous Johnson went further, "He plays above the rim I never could do that," he told ESPN. "We've never had anybody in the league like him. And also too, he's like the number one — he's right up with LeBron, with KD and Steph [Curry] as the entertainer. He's an entertainer so people will go see him."

Antetokounmpo was flattered, "So I'm on the right path, I've got to do what I'm doing," Giannis replied. Unfortunately, the Bucks star had signed a deal in 2016 and will be under contract through the 2020-2021 season for a cool $100 million, according to Forbes. League bylaw stipulates compliments like these are tantamount to recruiting and violate the somewhat informal rules against "public" tampering, according to SBNation.

He blamed Black entertainers for his talk show bombing

Magic Johnson's aptly titled 1998 talk show The Magic Hour was a "celebrity-stuffed" affair that seemed like a natural fit for a telegenic sports icon who'd always been good with the media. The reviews, however, were scathing and the ratings worse, according to The Washington Post. Even Howard Stern tried to give Johnson some slightly cringey advice to liven up the awkwardness with an "ebonics" strategy after it had been reported a speech coach was helping Johnson with his delivery. "Stop trying to talk like the white man!" Stern chided. Don't try to be Jay Leno, the shock jock seemed to be saying. Be Black!

It was too late, though. The Magic Hour was canceled after only two months, according to The New York Times. But instead of facing the tough realities of show business, Johnson blamed Black celebrities, "We all have to support each other, and we don't do that," he told Electronic Urban Report (via People). "Black stars think that if they're not on Leno or Letterman, then they're not making it. Their managers and agents keep them off of the black shows ... that's your major problem right there." Johnson claimed as a result, "All minorities suffer."

Arsenio Hall, whose late-night talk show ran for a respectable six seasons in two separate incarnations and was a genuine Black cultural hub — and might be responsible for the presidency of Bill Clinton — may beg to differ.

Magic Johnson won't stand up for Hong Kong

Controversy erupted in the NBA in 2019 when NBA-Moreyball innovator and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a rather innocuous message of support for the people of Hong Kong as the communist Chinese government attempted to remove all vestiges of democracy from a once largely independent state — this while China also shipped minority Muslims into concentration camps where there are reports of torture. "Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," Morey posted innocently (via NBC News).

Seems like a simple issue: freedom good, concentration camps bad. But China moved swiftly to punish Morey. Rockets games were dropped from state-controlled TV. Suddenly, billions of dollars and the expansion market of the future were at stake. Morey deleted his tweet and shriveled up swiftly. The social-justice-oriented NBA (when profitable) was next to bend the knee and apologized to a Chinese regime described by Human Rights Watch as an "Orwellian high-tech" and a "global threat to human rights."

Magic Johnson, worth over half a billion dollars and with serious moral standing, seemed positioned for bravery as he was asked his thoughts. But he too toed the line. "It's all about a solution," he minced, saying nothing in defense of Morey or Hong Kong to Today. Then he got to the heart of it, "It's a tough situation because ... there's billions of dollars at stake here." At the time of this writing, one million Uighur Muslims are now in Chinese concentration camps, per The Washington Post.