Wiedmer: Don't tell Levine or Smith that Magic's no role model

Wiedmer: Don't tell Levine or Smith that Magic's no role model

May 14th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

In this image taken from video provided by CNN, Magic Johnson talks with host Anderson Cooper at studios in Los Angeles in an interview broadcast Tuesday, May 13, 2014.

Normal Park Museum Magnet School principal Jill Levine grew up in Boston. Which meant she was a huge fan of the NBA's Celtics. Which also meant that in the endless argument over who was better -- the Celts' Larry Bird or the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson -- she always was a Bird backer.

But then Magic visited Normal Park a few years ago, charming and disarming not only the school's inspiring and impressionable students but also their principal.

"He was incredible," she recalled. "I remember him talking about how good he was with his right hand in basketball when he was a kid and a coach told him he'd never be great until he got better with his left hand. It was a great lesson that no matter how good you are, you can always improve.

"But it wasn't just our kids who were impressed. There were a lot of adults there that day, too. Just to hear about the kind of work ethic he's always shown in succeeding not only in athletics but also business was so impressive."

So when Levine watched the Los Angeles Clippers' doddering old racist, adulterer fool of an owner Donald Sterling tell CNN on Monday night that he didn't think Johnson was "a good example for the children of Los Angeles," Levine felt more than a tinge of anger.

"Magic's a guy that's gone through some tough things in life, things I'm sure he wishes he could change, like contracting the HIV virus," she said. "But he was also very open about that, telling our kids to learn from his mistakes. Everything about that day was so special. How he involved the kids in his talk, how he brought gifts to them, had pictures made with them. It was the kind of day that everyone who was there will remember for the rest of their lives."

It would be nice to forget about Sterling and the bigoted remarks he made to his mistress about Magic and others that wound up on an audio tape, though many will argue justifiably that that tape should have remained private.

But sometimes the truth outs you in the most unexpected of ways. Because the conversation with the mistress was made public, Sterling almost immediately was banned for life from attending any NBA functions by league commissioner Adam Silver and could soon lose ownership of a franchise he bought more than 30 years ago.

Maybe that's fair and maybe it's not. But given a chance to gain empathy, if not sympathy, on Anderson Cooper's CNN show, Sterling did just the opposite. Apparently listening to some lawyer whose phone number he must have found on a bus stop bench or bathroom stall, Sterling let the whole world see what a small, petty, pathetic excuse for a human being he really is.

Bash Magic, who may be the most inspiring black athlete of the last 50 years? Really? Why not rip Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, too? You think trashing Magic will make the NBA's other 29 owners any less likely to strip you of your Clippers? You think ripping Magic will make any of your Clippers players or coach Doc Rivers less likely to not want to work for you?

And just to be clear, Magic's basketball career may wind up becoming his least lasting mark on society. The Magic Johnson Foundation he founded when he contracted HIV has raised over $20 million for charity and given out almost $4 million in scholarships, according to CNN.

As for Sterling's assertion that "has [Magic] done everything he can to help minorities? I don't think so," Johnson's business empire of coffee shops, movie theaters, fitness centers and such -- most of them placed in financially disadvantaged areas and employing hundreds of minorities -- is now valued at $500 million.

So even if you subscribe to the belief that everyone can do more to help those less fortunate, how many have done more than Magic?

Even Johnson's immediate response to Sterling on Monday was more dignified than it deserved to be, Magic tweeting, "I'd rather be talking about these great NBA playoffs than Sterling's interview."

On Tuesday, he told TMZ, "I'm going to pray for the man. We need to get him some help."

But Levine's bright mind -- she's so smart the Education Department is bringing her to Washington, D.C., for a year to help it find ways to fix our broken public schools -- isn't the only one in Chattanooga who's seen Johnson work his magic with our community's young people.

The YMCA's Joe Smith, who has devoted so much of his life to at-risk youth, fell under Magic's spell at a charity fundraiser attended by several of his adolescent boxers.

"When we got there that night, Magic was more a name than an NBA player to our kids," Smith said. "He'd been retired for 10 years or more before some of them were born. And with kids, it's not about five years from now, as in, 'If you do this, this bad thing could happen later,' it's about today, it's about right now.

"But his message was immediately compelling to those kids because he took ownership of his past mistakes. He didn't run from his past. And then, when it was over, he spent real time with them, answering questions, posing for pictures, really going that extra mile with them. For anyone to say he's not a good role model, that's insane."

Added Levine: "When it comes to Magic, it's what we try to tell our kids every day: Everybody makes mistakes. It's what you learn from those mistakes."

Judging from his CNN interview, Sterling continues to learn very little from his.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.