How Did Magic Johnson Get His Iconic Nickname?

One would be hard-pressed to find a better basketball success story than Magic Johnson’s. He was one of the best college basketball players, but his pro career was even better. While many athletes have nicknames, few are synonymous with its owner like Johnson’s. While one might think it started during his NBA years, it all began when he was just 15. 

Magic Johnson’s career at a glance

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Johnson was born in Lansing, Michigan, and he lived in his home state until his move to LA. After making his name on the local basketball team, Johnson got the call from Michigan State. The NBA was trying to get back some of the star power it had a decade earlier.

So, Magic and his friendly rival Larry Bird could not have come at a better time. The fact that they were coming off of an NCAA Finals matchup and went to the Lakers and Celtics respectively didn’t hurt things, either. Once he was in the NBA, Johnson wasted no time showing that he was an absolute superstar. Playing next to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson immediately became the team’s sparkplug.

While most rookies have to go through years in the dredges before contention, Johnson was an NBA Champion and Finals MVP after just one year. Over the next 11 years, Johnson proved that he was a positionless superstar who could always step up when it counted.

Magic was a five-time NBA Champion, 10-time All-Star, three-time MVP, and three-time Finals MVP. Then, an HIV diagnosis sidelined his career in 1991. Johnson played with the 1992 Dream Team and tried to return five years later with the Lakers. But his career was essentially over.

Magic is born

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Johnson was bitten by the basketball bug early. Growing up in the blue-collar Michigan culture, Johnson used this mindset to be the best that he could be. He won at every level from a very early age. 

“I started off in high school after I won every championship … second grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, and ninth grade … I won them all,” Johnson told Alice Echo. “So, now I’m headed to a high school that wasn’t known for basketball. They had come in last place for the last seven or eight years. I had to figure out how I was going to turn this losing into winning.”

Johnson had a particularly dominant performance in high school when he dropped 38 points, 20 rebounds, and 19 assists in a 30-point blowout. Afterward, a sportswriter approached him and changed his life forever. 

“This guy walks in and says, ‘Man, that was an awesome game! I got to give you a nickname,'” Johnson told the website. “He said, ‘Somebody is already called Doctor J, and Big E was already taken.’ And because those two nicknamed were already taken, he said, ‘I’m going to call you Magic.'”

Much to his mother’s chagrin, the nickname stuck. Now, the idea of calling Johnson Earvin seems strange to basketball fans everywhere. 

Magic lives up to his nickname

A Hall of Famer, a successful businessman, TV personality, HIV activist, and kindhearted philanthropist, Johnson earned that Magic nickname many times over. Nicknames often have little meaning past childhood nostalgia. But Johnson’s nickname has resonated for nearly 50 years from the Lansing streets to the international basketball world. 

Maybe Johnson’s career would have been the same without the nickname. But it’s hard to picture a world where Earvin Johnson dominates the court instead of Magic.