Magic Johnson on his NBA legacy and overcoming his HIV diagnosis : The Limits with Jay Williams On this week's episode of The Limits, Jay speaks with the legendary Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Often called the greatest point guard in NBA history, Magic earned five titles over the course of 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers – and changed the nature of the game, too.

But before he was "Magic," he was just Earvin: a kid from East Lansing, Michigan. As he carved out a name for himself on and off the court, he learned how to navigate his public and private personas. But Magic's private life became very public in 1991. That's when he was diagnosed with HIV. He immediately retired from the game he loved, but he didn't back down; he became an outspoken advocate and entrepreneur.

Magic spoke with Jay about everything from his past rivalry with Larry Bird, how he turned his devastating HIV diagnosis into an opportunity to educate the public, and the importance of his investments in Black and brown communities. Ultimately, behind all his success is a man who loves to spend time with his family.

Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at thelimits@npr.org.

Magic Johnson on basketball, business, and being the face of HIV

Magic Johnson on basketball, business, and being the face of HIV

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Magic Johnson. Photo illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR hide caption

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Photo illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR

Magic Johnson.

Photo illustration by Kaz Fantone/NPR

This is adapted from the latest episode of The Limits with Jay Williams. Follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts, or get sponsor-free episodes, weekly bonus content, and more with a subscription to The Limits+.

On this week's episode of The Limits, Jay speaks with the legendary Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Often called the greatest point guard in NBA history, Magic earned five titles over the course of 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers – and changed the nature of the game, too.

But before he was "Magic," he was just Earvin: a kid from East Lansing, Michigan. As he carved out a name for himself on and off the court, he learned how to navigate his public and private personas. But Magic's private life became very public in 1991. That's when he was diagnosed with HIV. He immediately retired from the game he loved, but he didn't back down; he became an outspoken advocate and entrepreneur.

Magic spoke with Jay about everything from his past rivalry with Larry Bird, how he turned his devastating HIV diagnosis into an opportunity to educate the public, and the importance of his investments in Black and brown communities. Ultimately, behind all his success is a man who loves to spend time with his family.

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On the difference between his two personas, "Magic" and Earvin

Magic'll tear your head off. Listen. You trying to get something I want? I may be smiling, but you try to play cards and checkers and basketball and on and on, I'm a competitive, crazy guy. I love to win. That's Magic all day long. Earvin is completely different. Magic loved the spotlight and loved people and the whole thing. Earvin loved to get away from that.

On the work ethic he learned from his father

He said, "Listen, son, if you do this job halfway, everything in life you gonna do halfway. You gonna study halfway. You gonna practice basketball halfway." He said, "I want you to go get that shovel, break up that ice, and get that trash out of that ice and put it on the truck like you're supposed to do." That's when my life changed. I'm a perfectionist. I'm a workaholic. I love to work.

On his leadership and legacy in basketball

I think my legacy is defined by winning. I've won at every level. And I didn't care about points, I just tried to put my teammates in a position where they could be successful. And I understood what I had to do to win. So when I first walked into the Lakers, I already knew Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] were the scorers. So I said, "Hey, let me just feed them the basketball, do my thing and I'm good." So when the article came out, like, "Magic can't score," Larry Bird is averaging 25, 27 in his rookie year and I'm only averaging 17, and he dominated me for Rookie of the Year, I was so upset, Jay. Because I said, I could do that, but that's not my role here. Because it won't put us in a position to win if I try to do that.

On telling his wife, Cookie, about his HIV diagnosis

It drove me absolutely crazy, going home from the doctor's office to our home. To tell her that I have HIV was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Not knowing what she was gonna do, her reaction. And sure enough, I got home and told her, I said, "I can understand if you want to leave, you know, I get it." And man, she hit me so hard upside my head and she said, "You know what, we're gonna beat this together." And that's when I knew I was gonna be here for a long time, because if she had left, I probably wouldn't be sitting here in this interview right now.


Follow Jay on Instagram and Twitter. Email us at thelimits@npr.org.

The Limits is produced by Devan Schwartz, Max Freedman, Diba Mohtasham, and Leena Sanzgiri. Our Executive Producers are Karen Kinney, Veralyn Williams, and Yolanda Sangweni. Our Senior Vice-President of Programming and Audience Development is Anya Grundmann. Music by Ramtin Arablouei. Special thanks to Christina Hardy, Rhudy Correa, and Charla Riggi.