The world of cryptocurrency is not for the squeamish. The evolving, emerging marketplace for the alternative currency is likely years from settling into final form. But the true believers who will continue to invest and believe in its potency aren’t going anywhere. And you can now add to that list one Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The Hall of Famer and business magnate has formally entered the game with a new partnership with the NBA and Top Shot, the league’s partner that offers digital collectable NFTs — non-fungible tokens — of player and team highlights. Fans can buy and then trade the video clips the way kids a generation or two ago swapped trading cards. As ever with NFTs, the driving force is scarcity — the rarer the clip or highlight, the more valuable it should conceivably be on the market. The league, and Johnson, are gambling that people will pay for a uniquely packaged clip, with proprietary stats, serial numbers and other info, that they can almost always find on the internet for free. (The NBA has always been the most relaxed of the major sports leagues in the U.S. when it comes to allowing highlights and entire old games to be viewed on YouTube.) Johnson’s deal with Top Shot and Dapper Labs will feature five of the biggest moments of Johnson’s career in NFT form.
It’s just the latest venture for Johnson, whose four-part Apple TV+ docuseries about his life and career, “They Call Me Magic,” premiered last month. Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are also participating in a future project for Hulu that will document the Lakers’ run in the 1980s — the counterpunch, if you will, to the controversial HBO docudrama about that era, “Winning Time.” (Johnson has said he hasn’t and won’t watch the HBO series, which has been criticized in multiple circles for historical inaccuracies and for its portrayal of Jerry West, the Hall of Fame player and longtime Lakers executive. The series has nonetheless garnered solid ratings and has been picked up for a second season by HBO.) The Johnson docuseries details both the championship seasons of the Lakers’ dynasty as well as Johnson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991 that effectively ended his Lakers career, along with his relationship with his son EJ, who came out in 2013. The two now have a strong relationship, but the path to that wasn’t linear.
Below is a transcript of The Athletic’s exclusive interview with Magic Johnson, which also included a Lakers question or two and has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
David Aldridge: How did you research NFTs and say ‘This is something I want to do?’
Magic Johnson: I’ve been getting calls from so many different companies. So, I’ve just been really waiting for the right company. Everyone out there that’s doing NFTs has called me. I said, now, the NBA, it was just a natural. You think about the footage that they have already. I already trust them. I know how they do things. They always do it right. For me, and for them, it was a no-brainer. And to be the first to sign with them … they’ve already got all my special moments. All they had to do was go in the archives and dig them up. And then we’re in this technology world, right? It’s another way of those memories living on forever. They’re really finding a new way, another revenue stream-wise, for all these players, with their image and likeness, and plays, that they can make money. That’s what I really love too — it’s not just for myself, but for all, whether that’s current or retired guys, they’re able to make some money off of the plays and different pictures that they created in their NBA careers.
DA: Did you have any say in the ones they picked?
MJ: They suggested some. Of course, if I would have had a say, we would probably be on the same page. Come on, the skyhook, and the junior hook against them (the Celtics) in ’87, you already know. Of course, the same thing with the behind-the-back left-handed to Byron (Scott), that’s just amazing. I could just go on. We would have picked the same ones, but we have so many, it’s crazy how many you think about – the years that I played, the amount of playoff games I played in as well. It’s just a lot of great content. The NBA is doing it well, price point-wise. I think it’s affordable for the fan out there. That’s also what’s a key driving force for me too. They just do it right. I’m just truly excited. Top Shot, it’s been great. We talk, they work well with my team as well. You think about the evolution from trading cards. Sneaker deals. Guys were used to those two things. You might get some commercial, but you had to be in a special category for that. I think this, here, it’s another way for the fan to have something of Magic Johnson.
DA: Do you want older fans to see these iconic plays they remember differently, or do you want kids who may not have seen these plays live or on YouTube to experience them for the first time?
MJ: I think it’s a combination, right? You already know that the older fan, of course, they’re going to want something — and, a lot of times, they’ve already got something. So I would say that the younger fan, now, gets to have a piece of you. Everywhere I go, they talk about … I was just in Hawaii. So we’re sitting there, and people would come up. I told them, give me a couple of days, and you can come and get your pictures and all that. They would say, hey, I called my son, or I called my daughter, and they told me, if you get that picture, you’re going to be the coolest mom or dad. Magic, you’re going to make me cool with my kids.’ None of those kids ever saw me play, right? So now that whole generation, that YouTubes you, Googles you, they pull you up that way, and also 2K, since I’m on that, so they utilize me there in the game. So now, they get to have something that’s personal, that’s theirs. So I think we’re going to get a lot of both. We’re going to get a lot of young fans, you’re going to get a lot of older fans. This is the new way, this is the new thing. It’s almost like the new trading cards, in a sense. That’s what makes it special. For so long, it’s just been trading cards, trading cards, trading cards. This is the new way to do it.
DA: So all those boxes of cards I kept all those years, they’re worthless, huh?
MJ: No! They’re not. You better hold onto them. The trading cards, everywhere I go, they’re never going to go out of style. They still, man, I don’t know how they find me. They are out there with them cards.
DA: I have to ask you a Lakers question.
MJ: I know.
DA: Theoretically, what type of person should coach the Lakers next?
MJ: I think that, to me, they’re showing you, right now. Probably besides Erik Spoelstra, all the other three that’s in the final four are ex-players. So, I think that says a lot about these young ex-players who command respect right away, who have done it before. I’m not saying it has to be an ex-player, but I’m saying you have to look at what’s going on. Most of the guys who are in the playoffs. But the most important thing to me is accountability. They must hold everybody, one through 15, accountable. And we got away from accountability. Guys never talked about that this season. It was always somebody else’s fault. I hated that. Never, ‘Hey, I played bad. Hey, It’s on me.’ So whether it’s an ex-player or not, but the trend is ex-players. But if not, I want a coach that’s going to hold everybody accountable. And, so, that’s what I would like to see.
DA: You made the playoffs every year of your career. And I was trying to remember: I think you only went out in the first round once. Was it Houston in ’81?
MJ: Yeah, that was Houston, when I was coming back from injury.
DA: So I wondered what you think it’s been like for LeBron and AD to not have made the playoffs at all this year — and for LeBron, it’s twice now in his four seasons with the Lakers.
MJ: See, we, you had expectations, right? Everybody was saying the Lakers, with Russell (Westbrook), man, we’re talking about NBA Finals. We’re going to be one of the favorites. So, it’s definitely got to be driving them crazy — it should be driving all three of them crazy. Because we didn’t meet those expectations. We failed. Now it’s, what are we going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen next season? To your point, which is the biggest point, who’s going to lead that effort, coaching-wise? And then, so once a coach is in place, what are we going to do now about the roster? It’s really important that they get the right person, and then make, hopefully, the right roster moves. We know it can’t be a lot, but it can be something. I guess they’ve got to make those decisions.
DA: I talked with you about Russell last year, when he was about to break Oscar’s career record for triple-doubles. And I thought it could work with him and LeBron and AD this year. Do you think it could still work?
MJ: Well, it only can work, if you’ve got the coach — the right coach. To me, it still comes down to, who’s the coach? And, then, also, he’s on a one-year, $47 million (contract). Even if you offer him (in a trade), what are you, realistically, going to get back? I told them this too — you’re going to get some contracts you probably don’t want, and they’re going to go (chronologically) past his contract. You’ve really got to think about that. Are those players you’re going to get back, are they going to really help you? I said, talk to him. Whatever happened (this season), how can you make it better with Russell? How can you make it more comfortable? So they’ve got to figure all these things out. Take him out, take him to dinner or sit him down. How can this thing be better? ‘Cause if he’s going to be there, it’s got to be better. I guess whoever they name, that’s the first thing they’re going to have to do. And you can’t sit down once. You’re going to have to sit down for a week or two to try to figure that thing out.
(Photo: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images; Illustration: Logan Emser / The Athletic)
David Aldridge is the editor-in-chief of The Athletic D.C. He has worked for nearly 30 years covering the NBA and other sports for Turner, ESPN, and the Washington Post. In 2016, he received the Curt Gowdy Media Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Legacy Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Washington, D.C. Follow David on Twitter @davidaldridgedc