There is a well known photo of Magic Johnson congratulating Michael Jordan after the Bulls defeated the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The moment is historic in many ways. It was the Bulls 1st championship in franchise history, the start of what would become arguably the greatest run of championships ever. That year, they had to go through the Detroit Pistons who had dominated the Eastern Conference the prior 3–4 years and was captained by rival leader Isiah Thomas. Then they had to get through one of the best teams of the previous decade in the Lakers led by then-GOAT Earvin “Magic” Johnson. This title alone was newsworthy even before the events that unfolded over the next 8 years surrounding the Bulls, the NBA, basketball globalization, and all things Michael Jordan. Another provocative topic about the photo is the one regarding Magic’s unparalleled sportsmanship in defeat which, incidentally, has been compared to that of Isiah Thomas and his Pistons’ refusal to shake hands with the Bulls at the conclusion of the Conference Finals.
In this photo, Magic graciously embraces Michael and does exactly the opposite of what Isiah Thomas and the Pistons did in defeat. People know Magic as the kind of classy, humble, and charismatic sports figure that Isiah Thomas appears not to be and, at a glance, the photo displays all of Magic’s grace in defeat. It looks like evidence of why Michael idolized Magic and despised Isiah. It supports the theory that Magic, HIV and all, was welcomed onto the Dream Team by Michael while allegedly demanding that Isiah be snubbed. The photo simultaneously paints Magic to be the ultimate torch-passer and Isiah to be the ultimate cry-baby. This may be true or it may all be a ruse. Magic’s wife, Cookie, views the moment a different way.
In 2016, Cookie Johnson was the subject of a book called Believing in Magic: My Story of Love, Overcoming Adversity, and Keeping the Faith. The book chronicles some of Magic’s most significant life milestones told through the lens of his closest observer. The book takes its readers through their college years at Michigan State, the glamorous time with the Lakers, the HIV announcement, and life after Magic’s career as an NBA player which has been filled with success as a family man and business owner. The book alone is full of perspective that the general public has never been exposed to and, while certain highlights are familiar, some of Cookie’s recollections are as refreshing as they are authentic.
Back to the photo after the ’91 Finals, Magic seemed genuinely happy even though he had just lost on the sport’s biggest stage. Cookie points out that this trip to the NBA Finals was his 1st as a married man. Magic has made it no secret that Cookie has been an integral part of his life and, prior to this year, the couple spent roughly a decade struggling to make their relationship survive. They went through thick and thin, involved in each other’s families, career challenges, and even a son from one of Magic’s encounters when he and Cookie were on hiatus. The fact that they finally tied-the-knot was an occasion as impactful as anything that was happening on the basketball court. In fact, of all the years that Magic had been to the NBA Finals with the Lakers, 1991 was the first that he had allowed Cookie and his parents to attend the games. Up until then, Magic did not want to be distracted by family so he could focus on the game. Magic the Laker was already becoming Magic the family man. His elation in the photo with Michael could have been just as much about his life blossoming as it was about his grace in defeat. At that point, Magic had already played with the best, battled the best, beaten the best. This was Cookie’s perspective.
What unfolded next for Magic was a sequence that no one saw coming. A few months after the photo was taken, Magic announced to the world that he was HIV positive. He played his last meaningful basketball minutes as a member of the 1992 NBA All Star Game and on The Dream Team. Meanwhile, he and Cookie were welcoming the birth of their son, EJ. Over the next few years, Magic and Cookie joined forces down a life path that was nowhere near Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, or the NBA. Magic battled HIV. EJ came out as gay. They adopted a daughter. These factors resulted in a clean break from what Magic’s legacy left behind and what Michael’s legacy was building. Magic & Cookie rode off into the sunset and out of Michael Jordan’s way. Isiah was not as lucky.
The Pistons’ walkout after the Conference Finals became a footnote in the story that was painting Isiah Thomas as a villain. He then spoke against his friend Magic in his reaction to Magic’s HIV status. He was being labeled as a cheap-shot artist. All this while Michael won accolade after accolade in the NBA, in business, and in fame. Post retirement, Isiah tried his hand as an NBA coach and executive and struggled with both.
Looking back, it seems that the 1991 photo of Magic and Michael represents many layers of basketball storytelling, legacy, and folklore. Through the perspective of Cookie Johnson, the photo could be anything but.