EAST LANSING, Mich. - On Sept. 27, 2002, Earvin "Magic" Johnson will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. In a 7 p.m. ceremony on Friday night, televised by ESPN Classic, Johnson will be joined by Arizona head coach Lute Olson, Philadelphia 76ers head coach Larry Brown, North Carolina State women's head coach Kay Yow, the late NBA and international star Drazen Petrovic and the Harlem Globetrotters as part of the 2002 Hall of Fame Class.
A champion at every level, Johnson's value to the game of basketball extends far beyond his statistics and accomplishments, although they are quite impressive. Johnson brought people to the game of basketball with his love for the game and the flair with which he played.
Following a championship senior season at Lansing Everett High School, Earvin Johnson arrived on the Michigan State campus in the fall of 1977. Two years later, he would leave having captured All-America and All-Big Ten honors, and most important to him, the 1979 NCAA Championship. After his sophomore season, Johnson was the first player selected in the 1979 NBA Draft. Voted one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, he led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles. Individually he was a three-time league MVP, three-time NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA All-Star Game MVP.
For all that he has accomplished over the course of his career, Johnson has never forgotten where he came from. In fact, he remains a key member of the Spartan basketball family. This past week, a week where he could have been so many different places preparing for his induction, Johnson opted to spend time in his hometown. He also took the opportunity to play in some open-gym games with the Michigan State basketball team. In doing so, he passed on many things to the Spartans, some relating to basketball, some relating to life. It was a gesture not taken for granted by the current group of Spartans.
"It's so cool that he came back to campus the same week that he's being inducted into the Hall of Fame," said sophomore guard Chris Hill. "I don't think there are many Hall of Famers that would do that. But Magic is a down to earth guy that just loves to play basketball and is always giving us pointers. I'd like to congratulate him and thank him for teaching us so many things."
But don't think for a second that Johnson didn't get something out of the experience as well. "I get a great deal of joy from playing with these guys," said Johnson. "I want to be like a big brother to these players, someone they can ask for advice about basketball, life or the NBA. I can be a sounding board, because it's always helpful to ask someone who's been there. It's always great to be back home."
For Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, having a basketball legend like Magic Johnson around the program can only bring about great things.
"Since the day I came here in 1983, I've always been impressed with the way Earvin continually worked on his game every year and the way he always returned to Lansing and Michigan State every summer," said Izzo. "Even today, he remains a loyal follower of our program and makes it to a couple of games every year and keeps up with what we are doing. He shows the true Spartan family spirit that is then passed on to other players.
"As a player, he epitomizes the kind of player I dream about having in this program, which is one that always thinks team first. Last but not least, he is a great role model as an elite basketball player, teaching that elite players have the ability to make everyone around them better. He could take a walk-on, an intramural player and two of our guys and beat our five best players, just because he has a way of elevating everyone's game."
For incoming freshmen like Maurice Ager, having the opportunity to play with Johnson and seeing the way he cares about his old school leaves quite an impression.
"To see Magic come back to school shows that we are part of a great program," said Ager. "It's very special to be part of something like that."
Even the players who have been around for Johnson's previous visits are still impressed by one of the greatest players of all time.
"Magic Johnson is a great example for everyone in this program," said senior Aloysius Anagonye. "The great ones always give back. He set the example for people like Steve Smith and Eric Snow and now Mateen (Cleaves), Morris (Peterson), J.R. (Jason Richardson) and Zach (Randolph). He's done a lot to create a family at Michigan State. He shares his wisdom about a lot of things and we listen because he's been where we are trying to go."
"So many people forget where they come from when they experience success," added junior Jason Andreas. "But Magic is still a part of the Spartan family and remains one of our biggest supporters."
For some players it's just a thrill to get the opportunity to play with one of the game's all-time greatest players.
"It's great that he comes back and plays with us because growing up we all watched him win so many championships," explained sophomore Tim Bograkos. "Now we get a chance to see up close how he did some of the things he did. Getting the chance to play with him is a dream come true."
Some Spartans tried to pick up little aspects of Magic's game to add to their own.
"I was impressed with his competitive level," said junior Rashi Johnson. "Even though we were just playing a pick-up game, you could see that he really didn't want to lose. He has a great competitive fire and a love for basketball. He can even teach us younger guys not to take the game for granted."
Other players learn lessons relating to off-the-court issues.
"He's always been one of my favorite players," said sophomore Alan Anderson. "He is the ultimate team player on and off the court. He taught us that to win championships you have to be a team on and off the court and always know what your teammates are doing. That's part of being a family."
Clearly, the current Spartans are still amazed by Johnson's abilities. Johnson's college coach, Jud Heathcote, recalls the way Johnson changed how the game was played.
"Earvin revolutionized the game of basketball," explained Heathcote. "Being a point guard at 6-foot-9, he could do all the things that a smaller guard could do, except he could do them better. I say he is the greatest point guard in the history of the game."
Johnson was not the only Hall of Famer in East Lansing over the past week. Former Michigan State head coach Pete Newell was in town to spend some time with the current coaching staff. One of basketball's great minds of all time, Newell understands that Johnson had several unique talents.
"He brought a lot of excitement to the game of basketball," said Newell. "He had talent of making other players better. He was always a threat with the ball, because not only could he score, but he made everyone on his team a potential scorer. He also had a great understanding of the team concept.
"What might be most remarkable is that he always found a way to win important games. If his team won by two points, he might score 20 points. If his team, won by 35 points, he might score just 10 points, but he always found a way to win. That's part of being a great competitor and a champion."
Without a doubt, Earvin "Magic" Johnson is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Therefore, it's fitting that in the same year that the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame opens its new building, that Johnson settles into his place among the game's all-time greats. As Coach Izzo explains, it's as big an honor as anyone could hope to receive.
"I would like to personally congratulate Earvin," said Izzo. "This could be the biggest dream of them all. Winning championships and individual awards are great, but when you are selected as one of the greatest players who ever lived, that is saying something special. I am very happy for him, the program and the university."