"They Call Me Magic" Recalls Magic Johnson's Iconic Basketball Legacy

The man, the myth, the legend: Earvin "Magic" Johnson is revisiting his decorated career in the NBA in a new Apple TV+ docuseries titled "They Call Me Magic." The four-part documentary event takes what the streamer promises is an "illuminating, holistic look into the life and career" of Johnson — which includes his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, his HIV advocacy, and his work as an affluent entrepreneur and community activist. The Rick Famuyiwa-directed series connects the dots between Johnson's humble beginnings in Lansing, Michigan and the global basketball icon we know today.

Part one of "They Call Me Magic" — which premiered at this year's SXSW Film Festival — recalls Johnson's early playing days in the late '70s, tracing his journey back to high school and college before delving into his rookie season with the Lakers. It features insight from some of his close friends and family, including his wife Cookie, son EJ, and siblings. "They Call Me Magic" also includes never-before-seen interviews with some of Johnson's sports and industry peers like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Stephen A. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Samuel L. Jackson, and former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The documentary project comes just after the premiere of HBO Max's "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" — which spotlights the real-life story of the Showtime Lakers and their dominant era in the 1980s. Johnson, alongside Abdul-Jabbar, helped lead the NBA team to victory during his rookie year, and left his mark as one of very few individuals who changed the game of professional basketball as we know it.

This is just one part of Johnson's esteemed legacy that started on the court and has grown to be so much more since. All four parts of "They Call Me Magic" premiere on Apple TV+ on April 22. Keep reading ahead for the biggest takeaways from part one of the docuseries.

"They Call Me Magic": Part One
YouTube | Apple TV

"They Call Me Magic": Part One

  • There was always a distinction between Earvin Johnson and "Magic": Many of Johnson's peers, and even family, refer to Johnson both as "Magic" and Earvin to emphasize the opposing personalities: the celebrity vs. the non-celebrity. "Magic loves the crowd, loves the atmosphere of being a basketball player, where Earvin likes to get away from that," Johnson says of himself in the documentary. His son, EJ, adds: "Earvin and Magic are very different people. Magic is in front of the camera, big smile, laughing, loving the attention; Earvin is quite impatient and he's the one who's very controlling."
  • A sports writer was blown away by Johnson's performance in a high school basketball game and gave him his iconic nickname: Lansing State Journal writer Fred Stabley Jr. — who's featured in the documentary — was assigned to cover one of Johnson's high school basketball games in 1974. He was so blown away by his stellar performance — which the retired NBA player refers to as his first career triple double — that he said he needed to call him something special. He came up with the nickname "Magic" and it's stuck with Johnson ever since.
  • Johnson fully embraced his basketball nickname by the time he made it to the NBA: Johnson made quite the impression on his Lakers teammates when he first arrived in Los Angeles. He showed up to the locker room blasting his favorite group, Parliament-Funkadelic, from his boombox — which he'd carry with him often — and introduced himself as "Magic" instead of Earvin.
  • Johnson's other nickname was "EJ the DJ": Outside of playing basketball, Johnson also moonlighted as a DJ in college, earning himself another moniker: "EJ the DJ." According to his brother, Larry, Johnson would DJ on his off days. In the documentary, Johnson adds that he'd DJ at local nightclubs around Michigan and got paid to do so.
  • Johnson was smitten with his wife, Cookie, the moment they met in college: Johnson met Cookie one night while hanging out at a Michigan nightclub named Dooley's. He asked for her phone number so he could take her out, which Cookie reluctantly gave him because she didn't think he'd remember her name or to call her. But he did; in fact, Johnson would call her house everyday, nearly five times a day to get in touch with her.
  • There were constant comparisons between Johnson and Larry Bird while they played college basketball: The 1979 NCAA championship pitted Johnson and Bird against one another as rivals who also happened to be the most talented college basketball players in the country. "Everything was about them because there's a story about opposites that attract," KCBS sports journalist Jim Hill says in the documentary. "You got a Black guy, you got a white guy — opposites; you got Michigan State and Indiana State, their styles of playing — opposites." Winning that game over Bird and Indiana State helped Johnson get to the NBA sooner than he expected, and it's still considered the most-watched game in college basketball history.
  • Johnson wasn't a fan of the 1980 Rookie of the Year choice being Bird: During the 1980 NBA finals, the rookie of the year voting was announced and many were shocked to learn the results weren't close between Bird and Johnson; the former received 63 votes, while the lattered only earned three. "When I learned that Larry Bird had won by a wide margin, I didn't like it," Johnson says in the documentary. "Everybody always said about me my first year, 'oh, he can pass, he can run the team, but Larry Bird is a much better scorer' . . . I didn't like hearing that all the time."
  • Johnson looked up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar a lot as a rookie: Abdul-Jabbar hazed Johnson when he first joined the Lakers as part of the players' traditions, but Johnson didn't mind the treatment. In fact, he often found himself in awe of Abdul-Jabbar both on and off the court. When Abdul-Jabbar injured himself in the 1980 NBA finals, Johnson filled in for him as team captain and helped the team win their seventh overall franchise championship and first since 1972.
  • Johnson helped turn the entire Los Angeles Lakers franchise around: After clinching their first win of the NBA's 1979-80 season, Johnson began to see the makings of a championship-winning team with the Lakers. His bright spirit helped inspire his teammates and gave them hope of being a force to be reckoned with in the league. "He made it possible for me to change my image, and we started winning, [so] I could start smiling," Abdul-Jabbar says in the documentary. "He was exactly the player that we needed." Snoop Dogg even says that the Lakers' winning record helped unite Los Angeles and Johnson was seen as a "hero."
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Watch the Trailer For "They Call Me Magic"