published Friday, November 4th, 2011

Magic Johnson visits Chattanooga to assist Helene DiStefano Fund for cancer moms

Magic Johnson talks with fans Thursday at The Chattanoogan before speaking at a dinner to benefit the Helene DiStefano Fund.
Magic Johnson talks with fans Thursday at The Chattanoogan before speaking at a dinner to benefit the Helene DiStefano Fund.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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  • photo
    Tyler Massey, Jack Feagans, Reid Dotson and Will Jumper, from left, wait to meet Magic Johnson Thursday at The Chattanoogan.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Michelle and Mike McDougal, left, talk with Brenda Gwin, second from right, and Mary Chandler Gwin Thursday at The Chattanoogan at an event for the Helene DiStefano Fund.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    Michael Smith, left, talks with Dominic Guagenti, Tucker Smith and Johnathon Romero, from left, Thursday at The Chattanoogan at an event for the Helene DiStefano Fund.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Shareef Smith, Paul Webb and Marcus Johnson, from left, chat Thursday at The Chattanoogan at an event for the Helene DiStefano Fund.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

  • photo
    Tammy, right, and William Ellis put raffle tickets into a bucket Thursday at The Chattanoogan at an event for the Helene DiStefano Fund.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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    David Meredith, right, and Tommy Jennings look at cards bearing Magic Johnson's photo Thursday at The Chattanoogan at an event for the Helene DiStefano Fund.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Magic Johnson always could deliver an assist.

In town for Thursday night's "Magic for Moms" fundraiser to benefit the Helene DiStefano Fund, Johnson helped raise $20,000 in less than 10 minutes by turning his earlier pledge of four seats each for two Los Angeles Lakers games right behind their bench into eight seats.

When that brought a total of $16,000 from two bidders, he threw in four seats he personally owns at midcourt at the Staples Center to earn the final $4 grand.

"An amazing man," said Dr. Deborah DiStefano, whose charity helps pay the bills for needy mothers with cancer. "We've never been able to raise $20,000 before."

Clearly, DiStefano's charity was a big reason for the successful evening, whether Magic had spoken or not.

Said construction company owner Reginald Jordan, who paid $8,000 for half the tickets: "I'm a big fan of Magic and all he's done to help the urban community, but I've also had several family members affected by cancer."

But JoAnn Yates -- who paid the other $8,000 for four tickets for both a Friday night and Sunday night Lakers game in L.A. whenever, if ever the NBA lockout ends -- seemed to best mirror the affection for Johnson in the Chattanoogan's sold-out ballroom when she said: "I think he's an angel."

The NBA's all-time leader in assists per game (11.2) has certainly been touched by an angel since announcing 20 years ago this coming Monday that he had the HIV virus.

Contracting HIV back then was pretty much seen as a death sentence, since it almost always led to full-blown AIDS. But Johnson attacked the disease from the beginning as aggressively as he did the rest of the NBA in leading the Lakers to five NBA titles.

He exercised, he changed his diet, he religiously took the drug cocktails prescribed by doctors, never varying from the prescribed dose and time to take it.

Beyond that, his wealth allowed him to buy the drugs, when many others couldn't.

Said Johnson recently of his ongoing success against the deadly virus: "The medicine has done its thing. I think I'm doing my part. And God has done his part."

But that doesn't completely explain all he's done to help everybody else the past 20 years. His determination to build successful businesses in the inner city. His faith in minority employees. His charity work, which was so magnificently on display at the Chattanoogan.

In fact, the second most emotion Johnson displayed during his 45-minute talk was when he said, "Come this Monday, it will be 20 years for myself living with HIV."

The most his voice broke was in discussing the charity itself, which DiStefano began to honor her mom and close friend Julie Feagans.

Said Johnson, his voice cracking: "I only hope my son and daughter will honor me the same way one day."

It wasn't all teary moments.

Asked about playing on the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics, he cracked, "We're still the only Dream Team to ever win anything. The Miami Heat was supposed to be the Dream Team last year, but they lost. The [Philadelphia] Eagles are supposed to be the Dream Team this season, but they're having their troubles. But my team won the gold by something like 42 points a game. Now that's a Dream Team."

He also told of meeting with Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, when Johnson wanted to open coffee shops in the inner city.

"He told me he wasn't sure you could sell a $3 cup of coffee there," said Johnson. "I told him that minorities would pay $3 for a cup of coffee, but we didn't know much about scones [English pastries]."

Johnson eventually convinced Schultz to go 50-50 with him on a number of urban Starbucks.

"First year out, my stores averaged $4.59 per customer; his averaged $4.51. We own 125 Starbucks now, and they employ people from the surrounding community."

As he did a couple of years ago at Normal Park School -- and as he has more than once during talks at BlueCross BlueShield, which his Sodexo Magic contract food company services -- Johnson also preached the value of education, of staying away from the wrong people, of following your dreams.

And as for the chance that the NBA season could be a pipe dream, he told his dinner table of nine, "If the players would accept a 50-50 split [in revenue], they could be back at work by Monday."

Someone once asked Johnson what he thought his life would have been like had he not become an NBA superstar. With stunning honesty he replied, "I'd probably be working on an automotive assembly line in Detroit."

Perhaps that's why DiStefano mused, "I think he should be president."

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about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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