44 Years Ago, a Magazine Asked Me to Write About a Lansing Teen Named Earvin Johnson

October 26, 2021, 10:00 PM by  Allan Lengel

I was a senior at Michigan State University in 1977 when a friend, Adolph Mongo, called. He had just launched a high school sports magazine "The Champions," and he wanted me to do a story on a Lansing high school senior.

"His name is Earvin Johnson, but they call him 'Magic'," he told me. I had never heard of him, but Mongo assured me he was a big deal and had a very bright future.

So, I got a hold of Magic and we met at a Shell gas station in Lansing, where he pulled up in a brown Buick Electra 225, aka a "Deuce and a Quarter." I then followed him to a mentor's house for the interview. He was very humble, a true gentleman.

The other day Mongo gave me a copy of the magazine. I thought it would be fun to share the story from February 1977.

Earvin Johnson Show: Johnson Takes His Show on the Road

By Allan Lengel

In an area where a despondent weatherbelt seldom allows the sun to shine for three consecutive days and in a typical city of colorless houses and factories, it is still not surprising to see a tall, lanky Earvin Johnson walking the streets on the west side of Lansing acting as if they were paved with gold. Johnson, a six foot eight, 203 pound high school basketball player, is a senior who is religiously chalking up print in the city's newspaper, The Lansing State Journal for his phenominal ability to score points and lead his high school, Lansing Everett, to victory.

Averaging 26 points a game in his junior year and 24 in the preceding season, Johnson has been deservingly rated one of the top high school basketball players in the country, making him a magnetic commodity that has attracted offers from every major university in the country including Notre Dame, Indiana, North Carolina State, and the University of Michigan. For Johnson, the decision may be as difficult as a dieter looking at a full box of chocolates, knowing that he can only have one morsel but not knowing which will satisfy him best. 

Earvin in the next few months must take a careful look at the choices and decide which is the sweetest offer that will boost him to his ultimate goal -- the pros. He has until April 15 to make the decision.

Though often seen after practice with a jacket that sports the bold letters "MICHIGAN," Johnson says his decision is nowhere near definitive, though everyone from his parents, coach and the community at large hope his choice is a hop-skip-and-jump from his old high school -- Michigan State University. "There's a lot of pressure on me to go to Michigan State since I grew up here and my parents would like me to be fairly close to them," he says very rationally, adding, if I do go somewhere farther away I know I'll miss my friends." 

But despite all the press, the easy going high school star has not succumbed to commitment because he says he is looking for the best university in terms of an athletic and academic program.  And although MSU is home turf to the Lansing native, it may not be able to comopete with highly prestigious schools throughout the nation including the neighboring University of Michigan.

Even though MSU has enough to offer Earvin academically in terms of interests in radio and television, the athletic program has been demoralized and scarred in recent years by numerous firings, walkouts by black basketball players, and a severe reprimanding and probation handed down to the football team by the NCAA. All these setbacks cannot help the Spartan program look overly attractive.

Johnson's coach, George Fox, a young energetic competitor, who has at times been awaken at three in the morning by phone calls from universities concerning the star, is carefully reviewing offers with Johnson, though he would prefer to shove the other propositions aside and send him off to East Lansing where Johnson could rejuvenate the team that occupys the aging Jenison Field House. The community itself is gung-ho about the young star that might someday become a million dollar player. They are hoping they can stay close to their baby in the incubation period until he matures and is ready to fly the coop and move into the pro league.

By attracting such community envy and pride, is Johnson a celebrity on the west side of town? Well, anywhere from a party store to a local diner, Johnson says he hears the excited whispers of toddlers and adults who nudge one another with an elbow in the gut, saying: "hey, there's Earvin Johnson."

Being a friendly looking person with an outgoing and warm disposition, Johnson smiles with pride and says, "People holler out to me on the streets or I might walk into a drug store and end up talking for an hour to a person I don't even know. It's a hassle when you have to get somewhere in a hurry but then again I really like people so it's not that big of a hassle."

For Johnson the scenario of his jump to juvenile success follows along the lines of thousands who have made it. The script reads something redundant like this -- hard work. "I began practicing every weekend when I was in second grade by dribbling the ball back and forth all day and practicing on my layups," he says. "My father used to play basketball down in Mississippi and he was always giving me pointers."

Magic Johnson with his mother and father (Family photo)

These solo practice sessions landed immediate results when he battled it out on the concrete playground courts against older but not always taller classmates as he was able to compete quite competently against them.

What are the traits about stars of Johnson's caliber?

Inspite of the fact that his competitive ability is praiseworthy, he believes it does not run off into fanatical rages. As seldom as the top ranking team loses, Johnson and his teammates aren't pushed into traumatic stages of depression like some high school coaches might hope the youngster would do. "We might not be laughing on the bus after a loss but we don't constantly talk about defeat," he says quite candidly. "A lot of times we talk about where we're going later in the evening or somebody might mention that he's going over his girlfriend's house."

And if mistakes bother Earvin, his empathetic father is always on hand to give a comforting "forget it" after a game.

Is there jealousy on the team towards Earvin because he has taken all the attention from his teammates? If so, he says he doesn't see it and reinforces his perception by saying, as all winning athletes do, that both the black and white team members are tightly-knit friends that understand their roles on the squad. Despite his modesty, Johnson's popularity has reached immense heights in the area.

In the previous season against arch rival team, Lansing Eastern, the game was moved to MSU's Jenison Field House where a crowd of 9,000-plus gathered in a congested fashion to watch the kid do what he does best. Johnson recalls having chills when he saw the oversized crowd but still refuses to concede that most came to the vast campus to watch him.

If success draws respect, it is apparent in Earvin's nicknames, which in his earlier years ranged from "Stretch," to "Too Tall," to "Smokey Link," but drastically changed to a deserving "Magic" when he showed his impressive skills.

Because of his friendship with Dr. Charles Tucker, a former ABA player who now teaches at MSU, Earvin has been able to compete in local gymnasiums with such pro players as Campy Russell and Ralph Simpson. And to no surprise, he has legitimately held his ground against such excelling stars. Johnson's coach believes he could jump from his senior year in high school into the fierce competition of the pros.

Some are encouraging him to do so if the right offer knocks him comfortably into security. Though the expectancy of Johnson making such a move at the vulnerable age of 18 is doubtful. He admits the material goods that the pros flash about in the dressing rooms and parking lots are more than inviting. An elaborate home, a nice set of wheels, stylish clothes are all on the menu of Earvin's future if all goes as planned.

But until then, Johnson may just have to settle for being a happy-go-lucky college star walking the campus in his high-top gym shoes and collegiate attire grabbing headlines in prominent publications. 

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