Magic Johnson is a man so accomplished both on and off the basketball court that needs no introduction.
No matter the criteria, it would be hard to not include Johnson as one of the greatest to ever play the game. The five-time NBA champion and three-time NBA MVP also has one of the most charming and magnetic personalities in sports.
For The Win recently caught up with Johnson for a wide-ranging interview.
Johnson, who won the NCAA championship and was named NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player in 1979, checked in to discuss the upcoming March Madness tournament.
The former Lakers star, who also had one year of experience coaching the team in 1994 and had a brief stint as an executive before abruptly stepping down from the position in 2019, also shared his thoughts about the current state of the franchise.
Johnson also gave us a preview of his upcoming ad with Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, which features multi-hyphenate rappers and actors Dave Burd (AKA Lil Dicky) and Travis Bennett (AKA Taco).
The campaign with Coca-Cola launches on March 4, 2023, when North Carolina hosts Duke.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You had an incredible experience in March Madness. What insights can you share?
Magic Johnson: My experience was unbelievable. When I was a kid, that’s what I was dreaming about. I used to watch it every year. I wanted to play in the NCAA tournament during March Madness. I wanted that for myself and for whatever team I would play for. Michigan State went to the tournament both years I was there and of course, we won it my sophomore year, and that game against Larry Bird is still the highest-rated game in tournament history. When I think about this year, what’s really exciting is it’s going to be Mach madness because you don’t know who is going to win. This is one of the first times we haven’t seen the traditional powerhouse schools not be ranked number one.
We’re used to seeing Duke and North Carolina and Villanova and Michigan State. But now you’re seeing a whole new group of schools that are at the top and have a chance to win it all. Alabama and Houston and Purdue and Tennessee hadn’t been traditional powerhouses. We don’t know who’s going to win. It’s exciting for the fans. They are going to feel good about their team’s chances. It’s about whoever gets hot, and we don’t know who that will be yet. You have to be playing your best your last week or two and then into your conference tournament. It’s going to be some real madness.
You mentioned Michigan State. We have a Spartan in Purple and Gold. Thoughts on the rookie?
Magic Johnson: You know what? He got a lot of playing time, which I didn’t think he was going to get this season. That’s going to help develop him. He needed to get stronger. So when the Lakers had guys who were hurt, he even started a few games. I’ve been really impressed with his attitude and his work ethic. When you look at him in another year or two, he’s going to be something special because he has a high basketball IQ and he was coached very well by Coach Izzo and he watches LeBron every day. He watches Anthony Davis every day. He gets to be mentored by LeBron and that goes a long way. He’s soaking it all up.
What do you make of the Lakers' reunion with D’Angelo Russell?
Magic Johnson: I think D’Angelo has really grown and matured. He can score the basketball. He can pass the basketball. He doesn’t turn it over a lot. That’s what I like about him, too. That pick-and-roll with Anthony Davis is going to be special. You have to pick your poison for what you try to do whether it’s Russell coming off the PnR or Anthony Davis rolling to the basket and they’ll have some more time playing with LeBron. If the Lakers can get in, and I think they will, nobody is going to want to play them. That’s for sure.
Who do you predict will play in the 2023 NBA Finals?
Magic Johnson: Everything changed when both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving got traded. I thought Boston, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn were the top teams. Now, it feels like Boston and Milwaukee are the two best teams with Philadelphia right behind them. I believe that in the West, Denver is still very good and Memphis is right there. Let’s see what happens.
Phoenix has a real chance because that talent is unbelievable. If they can put it together, they can go to the NBA Finals. But you have to make sure they know how to play together. When you have a Big 3 like Devin Booker and Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, there’s not much they’re missing on that team. I think the teams in the West are Denver, Memphis, and Phoenix because I don’t think the defending champions are playing like the champions. Golden State lost something on the defensive end.
Denver has a guy putting up triple-doubles like we haven’t seen since you. Where does he rank among the best passers?
Magic Johnson: Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, and LeBron James are the three best passers we have in the game today. Jokic has taken his game to another level. He had eight triple-doubles in January. He already had five this month. He has just been playing at the highest level. When you think about him and Giannis Antetokounmpo, they’re probably my two picks for the MVP of the league.
You were a highly-touted prospect. What are your impressions of Victor Wembanyama?
Magic Johnson: Whew! Man! I don’t know if we’ve seen a big man who can do the things that he can. Normally, you have one or the other. Either your post-game is good or your outside jump shot is good. We’ve never seen a guy who can do both and can handle the basket and can also handle the basketball. He can block shots.
He can affect the game in so many different ways and whoever gets him: This guy is going to change his franchise forever. The hype is real. He will probably make an impact like LeBron did when he first came into the league. This young man is special. I can tell how great he was when I met his parents in France. Now I see why he is such a special young man on the court and off. His parents are very involved. They’re good people. His mom played basketball. He’s a league changer and a franchise changer. I don’t know if we’ve seen someone with this type of talent in a long time be that young.
What can you tell me about your upcoming commercial with Coca-Cola?
Magic Johnson: I’m honored to be leading Coca-Cola Zero Sugar’s newest March Madness campaign. It’s amazing under their Best Coke Ever platform. We filmed this at the bodega, which was really cool. I think about Dave [Lil Dicky] and Travis [Taco] fighting, March Madness has always been about who’s the best. You’ve always had that conversation whether you’re at the barbershop or at home or with your friends. It’s all about who’s the best ever. They’re having this conversation and I tip in and steal their Coke Zero. I’m so happy that Coca-Cola reached out to me because this is really crazy: I’ve been drinking Coke Zero Sugar way before they called me. I was already a fan. This just made it unbelievable that they asked me to be in this campaign.
I think about my whole experience with March Madness and so the commercial will be running during the greatest sports time when we all get involved. We all have brackets. We all become a fan of the tournament. I’m just thrilled. It was cool working with Dave and Travis. They’re funny. They’re good guys. I had a chance to drink my favorite drink on set. So it was easy for me.
FTW: Are there any stories you can share about these two guys on set?
Magic Johnson: We were probably laughing more than we were actually working because they are so funny. They always ask me about the Lakers and basketball and who I think is going to win the championship. We had a chance to dialogue in between takes. But they’re very very professional. They’re good guys. We had a great time. When you already believe in a product like Coke Zero Sugar as I do, it was so easy for me. I work out all the time so I don’t need any sugar or calories.
What are the latest updates with the Magic Johnson Foundation?
Magic Johnson: When Coke and I came together, we’re going to do something for HBCUs. This wasn’t just me doing a commercial for Coke Zero Sugar. It was also a donation to these historical black colleges, too. We’re making a difference, too. I want to thank Coca-Cola for wanting to do that with me. That’s what Magic Johnson foundation is all about. We make a difference in the community.
We did turkey drives. We did toy drives during the holidays in Detroit and Los Angeles. We will continue to do that. We will continue to send young people to college. I support a lot of the HBCUs with checks. We’ve got Central State University, we’ve got South Carolina State, Oakwood University, on and on and on. That’s what I do. I’m so happy that Coke Zero Sugar is doing our thing for this incredible campaign with Dave and Travis but we’re also affecting change in our communities at the same time.