Posts Tagged ‘Magic Johnson’

”All creative work is mystical.”
—Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now)

”Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves lacking.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche
(As quoted in the chapter ”Effort Counts Twice” in the book Grit by Angela Duckworth)

Last night I watched the four part series They Call Me Magic about one of greatest basketball players in NBA history. This was the Magic Johnson quote that jumped out at me about his dedication for the game as a youth and teenager growing up playing pickup games in Lansing, Michigan:

“I played [basketball] in the rain. I played in the snow, it didn’t matter. Sun up to sun down. And then I started playing against older boys, then I started playing against men. . . Nobody outworked me in the neighborhood. I was on the court more than any kid. It wasn’t even close. I wanted it more.”
—Magic Johnson

The reason that quote jumped out as at me is because I’ve been listening to the audio book Grit by Angela Duckworth. Just a few days ago in the chapter titled ”Effort Counts Twice,” Duckworth addressed greatness in Olympic athletes whose talent seem otherworldly. (Think of swimmers Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.)

She points to an study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” by sociologist Dan Chambliss who observed;

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and them are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; one the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produces excellence.”

How old do you think Magic Johnson was when he threw his first no-look pass? I’m gusessing pretty young. And before that become one of his trademark plays, I’m sure that small skill was well honed by thousands of passes before he put on a professional uniform.

I was a better than average football and baseball player as a youth, but when I joined my first basketball team when I was 12 I was instantly out of my league with kids who grew up around the game. Magic Johnson was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when he was 12 years old he didn’t already have a decade of experience around the game.

Back to Duckworth’s book:

“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

But Magic wasn’t really created from magic. Or fully formed. How did he come to be Magic Johnson? He told us in that first quote. He was created from the mundane task of showing up to play pickup games in the the rain, and snow, sun up to sun down. Determined to win, because winners got to stay on the court. And win he did. Here’s what he accomplished before he turned 21 years old:

Everett High School, State champs & Parade First Team All American (1977)
Michigan State, NCAA champs & All American (1979)
Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champs & NBA Finals MVP (1980)

Astonishing. And not only that, but Magic changed the game. He lead the team that made the NBA popular. The NBA Finals in 1980 weren’t even broadcast live, but aired on tape delay because CBS didn’t want to spoil the ratings of Duke of Hazards. (In 1980, Dukes of Hazard was the #2 Tv show in the United States with an estimated audience of over 21 million. About twice as many viewers of even the 2021 NBA Finals.)

But Magic and his Lakers teammates “Showtime”style of play throughout the 1980s (along with the Boston Celtics rivialry) made basketball mainstream in the United States in a way it had never been. And paved the way for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to take it to even a greater level of global popularity. And if you just saw Jordan in his prime—flying in the air—you’d swear it was a mystical experience. But when you read his story, you know he may have been the most determined person to ever play basketball.

Michael Jordan = Grit. (Of course, in basketball, it also helps if you’re 6’6″ like Jordan, or 6’9″ like Johnson.)

On page 211 of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touched on what I called the mystical aspects of creativity. The unexplained aspects. I even quoted Jimmy Buffett who said that even though he wasn’t the greatest singer or guitar player he was able to “capture the magic” in his songs and concerts. But now I’m thinking Buffett was full of grit. Still performing and touring as he approaches 75, he cut his chops playing on the streets of New Orleans and working his way up to clubs, then colleges, then larger concert venues, on his way to playing stadiums.

As I update my book, I’m going to revisit that section. I’m thinking that grit is a cousin of The 10,000 Rule.

P.S. My first paid job when I was in film school in the early ’80s was with Broadcast Equipment Rental Company (BERC) in Hollywood. My primary job was to drive Ikegami cameras to various production companies and TV studios throughout Southern California. I never got to make a delivery to the Forum where the Lakers played, but I know they did sometimes supply cameras to ESPN who covered games. But I did get a glimpse (thanks to a security guard) of the empty stage of The Tonight Show at NBC in Burbank back when Johnny Carson was the host. Here’s a clip of when Magic Johnson was on the show after he won his third NAB championship in 1985.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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It is a small world after all when tonight begins the first ever Disneyland verses Disney World NBA championship when the L.A. Lakers face the Orlando Magic. 

And while this is the first championship showdown between these two teams, they made their big screen debut in the 1991 Lawrence Kasden film Grand Canyon. The film opens with a street basketball game and then about two minutes into the credits cuts to the Forum and a game between the Lakers and the Magic.

That movie is particularly meaningful to me for a couple reasons. First I have a lot of nostalgia for that early Magic team because I lived in Orlando at that time.. The Grand Canyon opening features a brief clip of my favorite all time Magic player Scott Skiles (now head coach for the Milwaukee Bucks) and also Magic player Jeff Turner who I went to South Seminole Middle School with when we were both in sixth grade.  

But mostly Grand Canyon captures the disconnectedness of the Los Angeles I felt living there in the 80s. The sense that something was wrong with the world. It was a world of drive-by shootings, gangs, freeway shootings, serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, and seemed on a collision course between the have and the have nots. 

You could see the pot boiling in the 80s. While in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking team photographs throughout Southern California and got an inside look in just a couple years that few there see in a lifetime. Armed with my trusty Thomas Bros map and an Mamiya RZ67 camera I went everywhere including areas like Compton, Inglewood and Watts to take photos.

I never had any problem in those areas including the time my little 280z broke down in Compton. But there was one incident I recall from a school where I was taking pictures of a football team in South Central LA when I asked why one player had a different color wristband than his team colors and the coach explained it was a gang thing. Though the kid wasn’t in a gang he had to wear the gang colors in his neighborhood for protection. Danny Glover said it best in Grand Canyon, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know this, but this ain’t the way the world is supposed to be.”

I left L.A. at the end of 1987 and by the time the Rodney King trial ended a couple years later (where four LA policemen were acquitted) the LA streets erupted in protest. The riots lasted almost a week and resulted in looting, assault, arson and 53 people dying with a total of $1 billion in damages. A few years after returning to Orlando, L.A. was still fresh on my mind when Grand Canyon hit the theaters. I saw it three times because I appreciated Kasden’s attempt to make sense of the world there.

One shinning spot in the L.A. during the 80s was the L.A. Lakers during their “Showtime” era lead by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and their five NBA championships. It was hard not to be a fan. Then I moved back to my hometown of Orlando and became an Orlando Magic fan when the team formed and even got to go to their inaugural game on November 4, 1989. 

Back in those days Orlando seemed out of place on the court and even just being mentioned with bigger cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Shaq changed all that. He brought respect to the team and the city and led the Magic to their first NBA finals in 1995. And then he went off to L.A. where he helped lead the Lakers to three more championships. No hard feeling, right?

The Lakers are favored to win just as they did in the movie Grand Canyon. But there will be plenty of drama just like in Grand Canyon which earned the husband & wife writing team of Lawrence and Meg Kasden an Oscar nomination in 1992. (John Singleton was also nominated that year for his similar but different look at Los Angeles in Boyz N the Hood. 1991-92 were not good PR years for L.A. ) 


Scott W. Smith

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