For a kid growing up in L.A. in the early ’70s, the “Fabulous Forum” may as well have been Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland, with its snow-white columns and white-hot lights so bright you could see them from the 405. Back then, celebrities were nowhere to be found, and the crowds for the Kings hockey team were painfully thin—but that was just fine with my father, who would schlep us to the games (on school nights, no less!) just to cheer on the purple-and-gold Kings. Those nights, for me, were full of magic and promise.

Then the real Magic showed up. With a smile so dazzling it, too, could be seen from the freeway, Earvin “ Magic” Johnson turned the Lakers into the must-see show in the sports world. Scoring a ticket was near impossible after the player from Michigan State suited up for the ’79–’80 season. But with five championship seasons to his credit, Magic has transcended star status, as he moves from being just another basketball great to a symbol of Los Angeles. Now that he’s nowhere near a basketball court, his true talent has emerged. He’s making his dream of revitalizing neighborhoods and employing minorities a reality. His new book, 32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business, shares his secrets. If you asked me to design a postcard of L.A., I’d throw in a palm tree, the ocean and Magic Johnson wearing not a Lakers uniform but a suit and tie.

Liz Claman: First of all, I read the book. I was truly impressed, because just about every winning coach and, frankly, a number of star athletes, have written business books with a somewhat hackneyed “here’s how to get the team spirit to work for your business” angle. Yours is different—you don’t lean on the Lakers. Why not?
Magic Johnson: Of course, you bring with you things that make you successful after basketball. You have a sports strategy just like you have to have a business strategy. My work ethic is from sports. But this is it. I run a business every day. I go get the financing, I do it myself. When I started, I didn’t send anybody to talk to Peter Guber about allowing me to screen films at the Magic Johnson Theaters. To run a successful business, you really have to do it yourself, and sports analogies only really work when you motivate a crowd or a team. I try to hire people I don’t have to motivate. But I do motivate the people working with and for me.

LC: Most NBA players fade from the public eye after retirement and have somebody manage their money—game over. You chose not to follow that path.
MJ: I’m a guy who loves the work. I love coming to this office every day. I came in here to do this interview, then I’m gonna work all day. I read all the numbers. I know everything that is going on. I like things going on in my life. I don’t want to be on a beach somewhere just relaxing.

LC: At what pivotal moment did you think, I’m not just going to fade away when I retire?
MJ: I was sitting on my couch feeling sorry for myself after hearing I was eight months into HIV. Then Cookie, my wife, said, “I want you to be the man I married: the dreamer, the one who was going to get into business, not the one sitting here feeling sorry for yourself.” And that was the moment I said, “You’re right.” I wanted to do all these things after basketball, but I was feeling sorry that I wasn’t playing. And then I had a conversation with Dr. Buss, who made me see I had to come up with a business plan. It was natural for me to go into urban America, what people now call the emerging market.

LC: When you decided to take that challenge, you took it in the form of building a movie theater in a very densely populated but crime-ridden neighborhood, where the only other theater had a metal detector. Most people would have run screaming from an idea like that. You ran toward it. Why?
MJ: It was an opportunity to make a difference. When I did my research on minorities, at the time they made up 35 percent of all moviegoers—an extremely high number. So I said, “Wow, if African Americans are going but there are no theaters in that community, if I build one, they will come.” And I’m going to help them understand that if violence happens, this theater will close. So I’m just gonna say, “Hey, look, I’m building a brand-new theater. We’re gonna employ people from this neighborhood, and this is for you.” And I talked to both gangs, and they told me they would not do anything bad in the theaters. So we hired some gang members on the construction crew.

LC: So smart.
MJ: A lot of them got permanent jobs. And that was at a time when nobody was investing in the emerging market, black or white. So I came in early, and that theater is still one of the most successful. It still has not had any graffiti on the building or crime inside the theater. It’s been a sense of pride for South Central. And I’m so happy I started with that movie theater.

LC: Which was tougher—getting the financing or getting the gangs to declare your business neutral territory?
MJ: [With a robust laugh.] Oh, getting the financing! The gangs—it took all of two hours. That was a quick decision. It took me 9 or 10 tries to get the financing. That was the hard part.

LC: Who said yes first? I’m sure you had to rely on your star status, but how many basketballs did you have to autograph before you got one of the many banks you visited to invest?
MJ: I signed about 50 balls and pictures. They all wanted the autographs, but they were not going to back my business plan. CalPERS [California Public Em­ployees’ Retirement System] really stepped up. They turned me down the first time—they said, “Hey, if this is so great, why isn’t somebody else doing it in the emerging market?” But later they said, “You know, we’re gonna rely on your track record.”

LC: What was that moment like, when CalPERS finally told you yes?
MJ: Well, let me just go back to this: When I first talked to them, I was more nervous than when I was playing against Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. I told them, “I’ve never been this nervous in my life.”

LC: So when they said yes?