Magic Johnson at HIMSS18: Stay focused on what's really important

"If you have people who are smart, and want to over-deliver for the patients, you're going to get a lot accomplished," said the Lakers legend.
By Mike Miliard
08:27 AM
Magic Johnson at HIMSS18

LAS VEGAS -- In a boisterous and often uproariously funny closing keynote at HIMSS18, NBA legend and business magnate Earvin "Magic" Johnson also offered some inspirational lessons about health, ambition, work ethic and community building.

Johnson eschewed the stage to stand at ground level – at six feet, nine inches, he was still easy to see – and strolled among the audience: chatting people up, glad-handing, chest-bumping, and posing for photographs.

To one particularly petite attendee, who was barely more than half his size, he said, "I was gonna tell you to take a selfie, but it won't work."

Johnson offered a string of anecdotes that started with his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. (He gave a shout-out to audience members from the city's Sparrow Health System – whose CMIO, HIMSS Board Chair Michael Zaroukian, MD, it was later revealed, once shot some hoops many years ago with Johnson and the rest of the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team.")

Johnson discussed the lessons imparted by his parents (thrift from his mother, hard work from his father) and told stories about his high school basketball prowess (he scored his first triple-double at just 15 years old).

And he told some entertaining stories about his NBA peers, Larry Bird ("greatest to ever play on the ground") and Michael Jordan ("the greatest to ever play in the air").

It's the former, of course, with whom Magic had his greatest and most famous rivalry – dating all the way back to the 1979 NCAA national championship game – and he had some powerful reminiscences about those Celtics-Lakers glory years.

"Larry Bird made me a better basketball player, and a better man," he said.

"He's the ultimate competitor. You had to dislike him to beat him, he was that good. And we're linked together forever – even in those little hot pants we used to wear. Boy, those shorts were short back then!"

Fast forward three decades, and Johnson has channeled that competitive spirit into a lucrative and wide-ranging career as a businessman: pioneering ventures with Sony and Starbucks, ownership stakes in three professional sports teams and even healthcare ventures. (He was a co-owner, spokesman and board member of Simply Healthcare, a Florida managed care company that was acquired by Anthem for $1 billion).

But if a competitive drive is critical to success, so is cooperation.

"If a team is winning it's because of 12 guys in basketball, not one," said Johnson. "We all must play our role to make the business go. From the receptionist all the way to the doctor."

A sense of purpose and a focus on goals is also a must-have for success, he said.

Johnson goes to bed by nine and is up early at 4:30 a.m. He goes to the gym. "Then I have my 'be-still' time," he said: a quiet hour or two where he looks toward the day ahead. "What do I want to accomplish today? A lot of time, we're so frazzled, and we're moving so fast, that we forget to say, 'This is what's really important.'"

Then it's time to get to work. "I'm a worker, so I hire people who are workers. I don't like clock watchers, I like people who stay until the job is done. If you have people who are smart, and want to over-deliver for the patients, you're going to get a lot accomplished."

Johnson is familiar with the U.S. healthcare system. His 1991 announcement that he was HIV positive sent shockwaves through the sports world and beyond. Thankfully, the treatments available for the condition have evolved dramatically over the years.

"When I first announced, there was only one drug at that time, AZT," said Johnson. "And there's more than 30 drugs now. People can lead a healthy life with early detection."

"This is my 26th year, going on 27th, living with HIV," said Johnson. "And I'm just trying to bless people around the country in terms of the funding, trying to continue to educate people on HIV and AIDS."

Asked for a piece of closing wisdom for the HIMSS18 audience, Johnson said to "believe in yourself. Here I am, from the inner city, and a lot of people didn't believe I could make it to the NBA. Then they thought, 'No way you can play point guard.' Then they thought there was no way I could move from the basketball court to the board room. I just use that as fuel. It's amazing, if you believe in yourself and you prepare, what you can accomplish.

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