For Earvin “Magic” Johnson, some of the biggest moments in his life happened in Utah.
He won the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City 39 years ago. He competed against the Utah Jazz as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
And, after a short visit to Salt Lake City, he learned he was diagnosed with HIV.
“All the things in my life that were powerful happened in Utah,” he said. “My championship game in college was here. The day I got called home about HIV. Where was I? Utah.”
Johnson was one of the speakers at the Qualtrics X4 event on Thursday. Johnson spoke about how he operates as a leader of the Los Angeles Lakers, how to manage a successful business and his HIV diagnosis.
Johnson, who paced around the front of the stage as Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith asked him questions, said he was visiting Salt Lake City for an exhibition game against the Utah Jazz in 1991 when he received a phone call from his doctor, who told him to come back to LA.
“When I walked into the doctor’s office, he begins to tell me I had HIV. And that just shook me up,” he said.
He then worried about his wife and soon-to-be-born child, EJ Johnson. He didn’t know how this would affect him.
“The hardest thing I thought I would have to do was play against Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. But the hardest thing I had to do was tell my wife that I had HIV,” he said.
He asked his wife, Earlitha Kelly “Cookie” Johnson, if she would leave him. She chose to stick by him.
“If she had left, I would have died. I needed that support,” he said.
Johnson recounted on Thursday how he’s always leaned on the lessons and support of others to find success in business, too. He said he’s learned lessons from every CEO and president he’s met to become the successful businessman he is today.
He said when he lived in Lansing, Michigan, he asked a pair of businessmen for a job. They gave him one cleaning offices after hours. He would spend time late at night in the boss’ chair, pretending he was the CEO.
“I’m a big believer if you don’t believe it, you can’t become it,” he said.
Johnson, who is the president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, said, “I was sitting there for hours dreaming I was the CEO. Here we are 40 years later and I am the CEO.”
Johnson said his family also helped him become who he is now.
“I’m just like my father and just like my mother. I have the work ethic of my father and I’m really a guy who pays attention to my dad,” he said.
“I have the smile and personality of my mom. And I also have her heart,” he said. “Even though we had nine brothers and sister and my two parents, anybody who (was) in need, she would cook dinner for them, and I had to go take it to them.”
Johnson said he’s never lost his dad’s work ethic. Even after he was drafted No. 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers, he kept working hard. He said he would show up at the gym three hours early.
Soon, his coach Pat Riley asked the entire team to follow his lead.
Now, Johnson said, he wakes up at 4 a.m. and hits the gym at 5 a.m. After that, he spends all day in the office.
“I’m always focused on making sure our core values are met, that people follow our brand and that they trust our brand. So everything we say we’re going to do, we must do that.”
He said he expects the same from his coworkers and employees at the Lakers organization.
“It’s not enough for you to deliver anymore. In this marketplace, you have to over-deliver,” he said.
But his work with the Lakers almost didn’t happen. Johnson said he fielded several ownership offers before he joined the Lakers. One was from the Detroit Pistons and another from the Golden State Warriors.
But Johnson shot them down every time.
“This is how good God is. Turned down Golden State, turned down Detroit, and what did He bless me with? The Lakers. I’m happy to be back. I want to build the brand back up,” he said.
Johnson said he can’t attribute his success to anyone but God.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said. “God has really blessed me.”