Atrium Health President and CEO Eugene A. Woods and former NBA player and entrepreneur, Magic Johnson

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The Road Less Traveled

Basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson served as a special guest for Atrium Health’s annual FOR ALL Conference. Now in its 20th year, the diversity conference celebrates Atrium Health’s mission to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – FOR ALL. Johnson discussed his journey from the basketball court to the boardroom with Atrium Health President and CEO Eugene A. Woods.

Magic JohnsonEarvin “Magic” Johnson is arguably the greatest point guard of all time. But that doesn’t mean everything came easy to him. He was great at basketball, but he wanted more.

“I used to want to be in the NBA,” he told Atrium Health President and CEO Eugene A. Woods in a virtual discussion at Atrium Health’s annual FOR ALL conference. That was until he met two Black men who owned businesses in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan.

“When I saw them, it changed my dreams and goals,” Johnson told Woods. “Now, I wanted to make it to the NBA – but I also wanted to be a businessman.”

So, a young Johnson asked for a job.

They said yes. And so the boy who would become NBA legend and entrepreneur Magic Johnson got his first job: cleaning a 7-story office building.

“I cleaned the first six floors. I got to the seventh floor – that’s where the CEO’s office was,” Johnson remembered. “I sat in his seat. I started dreaming I was the CEO. I pushed the intercom button and pretended I had an assistant.”

Johnson and Woods laughed as the basketball legend recalled pretending to ask for coffee and donuts. But after sitting in that chair for hours, Johnson’s dream of becoming a CEO took even greater shape. The experience flipped a switch in him. As his basketball career grew, he continued to look for opportunities to grow in other ways.

Creating Opportunities – FOR ALL

“I’ve always wanted to be a businessman,” Johnson said. “I also wanted to change things in the inner cities of America – urban America – to create job opportunities.”

It’s that mindset that led Johnson to this event in the first place. Atrium Health's annual diversity conference attracts some of the nation’s foremost experts in the areas of culturally competent care, diversity research, supplier diversity, multicultural marketing, workplace inclusion, strategic diversity management and other leading-edge diversity disciplines. The learning forum helps support Atrium Health’s mission to improve health, elevate hope and advance healing – FOR ALL.

This year, the FOR ALL Conference celebrated its 20th year. In those two decades, Atrium Health’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion infrastructure has grown from just 10 teammates supporting the work to 10,000. The efforts have earned national recognition.

“But we don’t do this work for recognition,” Woods told teammates participating in the conference, “we do it because we want to make this world a better and more equitable place.”

For Johnson, that starts with jobs – and creating opportunities for people of color.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as small businesses across the nation struggled to stay open, Johnson’s company spent millions of dollars to help save more than 30,000 Black-owned small businesses.

“There are going to be challenges,” he said. “There are going to be tough times. I always try to look at, how can I reverse it? How can I make the tough time the good time eventually?”

For Johnson, that means helping small business owners and giving contracts to minority-owned firms.

“Those contracts can go a long way,” he said.

Because, sometimes, the only thing standing in the way of success is an opportunity.

Growing as a Leader

As Johnson’s own career grew, he met several people who gave him an opportunity.

“Different men and women became my mentors,” he said. Johnson explained how Jerry Buss – or Dr. Buss as he was known – the late owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, took him under his wing, even opening the books and showing him how the business side of the Lakers worked. “I was blown away.”

But it gave Johnson an idea. He called Dr. Buss and asked for the phone numbers of Lakers season ticket holders who also owned businesses. He wanted to take them to lunch.

“I called over 50 presidents and CEOs,” Johnson said.

They all said yes, of course, to the Lakers superstar. But Johnson learned valuable lessons about business. Today, Johnson still counts six of those CEOs as his mentors. Some, he’s even in business with. It’s because of those mentors and the opportunities they helped create that Johnson became the successful businessman he is today.

That’s where Atrium Health is leading the way, striving to build connections just like those Magic made early on in his career. Woods told Johnson of the vision for the health system’s highly anticipated The Pearl innovation district , that includes a “talent pipeline” that engages students from elementary school through college. As part of this approach, there will be outreach programs put into place with local schools that introduce students to the excitement and benefits that accompany academics, research and entrepreneurship at a young age.

It's a concept Johnson wholeheartedly supports.

“If you can bring those kids into the hospital or the doctor’s office, it’s going to trigger something for them,” Johnson said.

“It changes the conversation at the dinner table,” Woods agreed.

And for both men, the importance of those opportunities – FOR ALL – also means embracing everyone as they are.

“When you can let somebody be themselves when [they] come into the workplace, that’s what employees want,” Johnson explained. “That’s how they’re going to excel for you.”  

One of Atrium Health’s Culture Commitments is “We create a space where all belong.” It’s a message Johnson said he can get behind but acknowledges that achieving that kind of environment doesn’t happen without effort.

Change Takes Time

While progress is being made in terms of social justice, some may be discouraged it’s not happening as fast – or as consistently – as they might hope.

“Change takes time,” Johnson said. “We need everybody to stay motivated. Stay focused on the fact that we have to still make more changes. These problems are not going to go away just because we protested … just because we raised our voices that this shouldn’t be happening. If we all get discouraged, then we’re not going to continue to fight. We’re not going to keep the conversation going. What’s important is that we keep the conversation going.”

When Johnson wanted to start his business, he struggled to get a loan. Bank after bank turned him down. The process went on for seven years.

“Nobody wanted to give me the loans,” he recalled. “I was Magic Johnson. I was winning championships. But I was still this 6-foot-9 Black man.”

But if he had given up then, he said, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now, where he’s able to create jobs and opportunities for minorities.

“There’s always going to be an end,” he said, with that trademark Magic Johnson smile. “So, keep going. And stay positive.”

Overcoming Adversity

When Magic Johnson stepped onto the basketball court, he knew he was the best player out there. Except, when he wasn’t.

In the 1984 NBA World Championship Series (now known as the NBA Finals), Johnson and his Los Angeles Lakers lost to his longtime rival, Larry Bird, and the Boston Celtics.

“I was the reason we lost that series,” Johnson said. “That was the first time I didn’t excel. I was hurt. I was disappointed. I cried. I had to admit to myself to get better.”

So that summer he worked extremely hard with one goal: a rematch.

“Sure enough, we played them the next year, knowing I’d worked all summer, all year to get better,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to take a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis) at yourself. What do I need to improve on? What do I need to do to get better?”

It worked. Magic Johnson and the Lakers defeated Bird and the Celtics in the 1985 NBA World Championship Series – Johnson’s third championship. He went on to win two more championships before retiring in 1991, after announcing that he had contracted HIV.

“It was probably the darkest moment of my life,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d done everything right until then. The hardest thing I thought I’d have to do was play against Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. But the hardest thing was having to drive home and tell my wife, who was pregnant with our son, E.J., at the time, and then wait for the results to see if she had it or the baby had it. I’ve never been that down in my life.”

When Johnson learned his wife and son were healthy, he focused on himself – not only on staying healthy, but on going out into the community to educate others about HIV. His courageous conversation with the country helped take some of the stigma away from the disease.

“Leaders have to stand up,” Johnson said. “I held myself accountable. Accountability is everything. I wanted people to know what happened, to make sure they could educate themselves so it doesn’t happen to them. I didn’t hide. I went in front of the world and explained it. That’s what leaders have to do.”

Being a good leader is a position Johnson takes very seriously.

“I believe you can do good and do well at the same time.”

Doing Good

For most of his childhood, Johnson attended all-Black schools. In high school, though, he was bussed to an all-white school. The experience changed his life.

For the first three weeks of school, there was tension amongst the students. But on the fourth week, when Johnson’s bus pulled up at the school, the principal was waiting for him. He took Johnson to his office, where a young white football player was already waiting.

“He said to him, ‘You’re going to stop all the white kids from fighting,’” Johnson said. “He told me, ‘You’re going to stop all the Black kids from fighting.’ I was 15. I was a sophomore. He said, ‘They’ll listen to you.’”

Johnson went into the school’s auditorium and talked with his classmates. The fighting stopped. It was in that moment, Johnson said, he learned a valuable lesson:

“I learned how to work with people that didn’t look like me.”

That education, desire and willingness to continue to learn is something Johnson prides himself on and hopes that others will embrace in order to keep the conversation going.

“I’m constantly learning. I love to learn and grow,” he told Woods as they neared the end of their discussion. “I’m going to be a better leader tomorrow because of this conversation.”