What can school leaders learn from a basketball legend? When Earvin “Magic” Johnson spoke at NSBA’s Annual Conference in New Orleans Monday, he said they need to take a lesson from two of his favorite players, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
“They made the people they played with better,” Johnson said. “You have to make the people you work with better. You have to make the schools better. That’s your legacy. That’s what God put you on this Earth to do.”
Johnson said he was enthusiastic when NSBA approached him about appearing in public service announcements for its “Stand Up 4 Public Schools,” campaign, which NSBA President David Pickler announced has just been endorsed by the National PTA.
“I’m a product of public schools,” Johnson said, recalling his days growing up in Lansing, Mich.
He said he learned discipline when he failed to turn in homework and was told he could not play in a sixth-grade basketball game. And when a high school principal wanted him to talk to other students to cool racial tensions, “that was the beginng of my leadership skills.”
Also he noted that he has six sisters, all public school teachers.
Wandering among the audience at a General Session, pausing good-naturedly for a few photos and selfies, Johnson noted that he has focused part of his philathropic work since retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers on urban youth, and “they need access to a great public school.”
That includes having access to the same technology and other tools that are common in suburban schools, added Johnson, who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers and is involved a portfolio of businesses including the Aspire television network and Sodexo Magic, an affiliate of conference sponsor Sodexo.
“And don’t let them close those schools too early,” he added. Urban children need safe places to stay after regular school hours, he said.
When he meandered on to the stage, he picked two boys in the audience to be recipients of his crowd-pleasing life-lessons.
He told one boy, Thomas — the grandson of NSBA President Anne Byrne — about the importance of having a personal vision. He said that as a 16-year-old, he had a job cleaning an office building, and he would linger in the chief executive’s office. He’d sit in the CEO’s chair and hit the intercom. “Aisha, can you bring me coffee and donuts and the paper?”
When the laughter died down, Johnson said, “Forty years later, I am the CEO.”
To another boy, Eric, he said, “I don’t worry about the naysayers” and recalled a high school security guard who told him he’d amount to nothing. Leaning his six-foot-nine frame over the boy, he said, “Being smart is really cool…don’t let anyone tell you any different.”
He also did the math on the chances of making it professional basketball (about 30 of 10,000 college basketball players make it in the NBA), and said that’s why every student with a dream like athletics or music should pursue it only while simultaneously getting a good education.
In a Q &A with NSBA Executive Director Tom Gentzel, Johnson recalled some clean “trash talk” from his days with the Lakers.
For instance, Larry Bird showed up in the locker room before a three-point shooting contest and asked, “Who’s coming in second?”