Review by Brian Lowry, CNN
It’s a testament to Magic Johnson, the man, that basketball only accounts for about half of “They Call Me Magic,” a four-part Apple TV+ docuseries devoted to his life, including the rich chapters that followed his NBA stardom. Think of it as a more satisfying companion to HBO’s “Winning Time,” or more focused alternative to ESPN’s comprehensive Bulls chronicle “The Last Dance.”
For basketball fans, those first two parts are certainly a heady dive into Earvin Johnson Jr.’s dazzling talent and incandescent personality, which earned him his nickname at an early age, with journalist Michael Wilbon drawing a distinction between Earvin, the guy, and Magic, “a character that played basketball.”
Johnson’s high-school heroics, national championship at Michigan State and NBA title as a rookie are all well documented, which might explain why director Rick Famuyiwa gives them their due but doesn’t necessarily dwell on them. In his extensive interviews, Johnson admits to having been angry when Larry Bird won rookie of the year, while fellow Lakers recall their skepticism over Johnson’s closeness to Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
“We were all wondering if Earvin was a player or management,” teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes, after marveling that Johnson’s no-look passes “made it seem like he was clairvoyant.”
As the documentary notes, Johnson’s golden aura was tested at times, from his failures against the Boston Celtics earning him the unwanted nickname “Tragic” to boos raining down on him after he was stamped with having triggered the firing of then-Lakers coach Paul Westhead.
Still, the real heart of “They Call Me Magic” comes in the third and fourth hours, the first extensively documenting Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, catapulting viewers back not only to how devastating that moment felt but Johnson’s role in shifting the way that AIDS was perceived.
“We all thought it was a death sentence,” coach Pat Riley says, while James Worthy remembers as he and his Laker teammates heard the news, “We just sat there, numb.”
The final portion covers Johnson’s success as a businessman, championing development and investment in Black neighborhoods; and his life as a husband and father, as well as other detours, like his ill-advised latenight hosting stint “The Magic Hour,” which Jimmy Kimmel calls “one of the worst television shows in history.”
“They Call Me Magic” never ventures too far from basketball, including Johnson’s experience with “The Dream Team” during the Olympics and his occasional comeback attempts, but it makes clear that the game that made him famous doesn’t entirely define him.
The docuseries also feels like a tonic, frankly, compared to the cheeky, cynical tone of “Winning Time,” and a fitting extension of other documentaries devoted to those glory years for the NBA, such as “Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies,” which more extensively detailed the extent to which that rivalry, and Johnson and Larry Bird in particular, were pivotal in reviving the league’s fortunes.
As for the inevitable questions about the pantheon of NBA greats, Riley admits to a certain bias in pronouncing Johnson the best ever, while Bird says simply, “It doesn’t matter who’s better, we’ll be linked together for the rest of our lives.”
Abdul-Jabbar and former Laker star-coach-general manager Jerry West recently expressed their displeasure with “Winning Time,” and Johnson made clear he wasn’t thrilled about it either. This Apple production provides a Magic-approved view of the world, with an upcoming docuseries about the Lakers — the L.A. franchise’s version of “The Last Dance” — coming from Hulu.
Even those who are familiar with Johnson’s career will likely find new wrinkles and anecdotes here thanks to the broad reach of the interviews. And besides, what basketball fan couldn’t use an assist when it comes to putting more Magic in their lives?
“They Call Me Magic” premieres April 22 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works for a unit of Apple.)
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