Magic Johnson Used to Be a Janitor — Here's Who Helped Show Him He Could Be More

Jason Duaine Hahn
·3 min read

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

Magic Johnson's path to five NBA championships and a successful investment company wasn't walked alone.

Since last suiting up for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, the 61-year-old has built a business empire with holdings worth at least an estimated $1 billion through his firm, Magic Johnson Enterprises, according to Sports Illustrated. He's continued to make an impact in the sports world as well, by becoming a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers — last year's World Series champions — and other L.A.-area teams. Not to mention, he was instrumental in helping to bring LeBron James to the Lakers in 2018.

The NBA Hall of Famer says he owes much of his success to the Black businesspeople who showed him the basketball court wasn't where he could make his most lasting impact.

Two of those people are Gregory Eaton and Joel Ferguson, a pair of entrepreneurs from Johnson's hometown of Lansing, Michigan.

"I didn't know we could own businesses as minorities," Johnson recalls to PEOPLE in a recent interview.

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Lance King/Getty Tom Izzo, Joel Ferguson and Magic Johnson

"When I ran into them and saw they owned buildings and shopping centers and malls, my whole dreams changed from just making it to the NBA to becoming a businessman," he explains.

Eaton began his entrepreneurial career with a janitorial service that cleaned schools and businesses around Lansing, according to Michigan State University. Johnson was one of Eaton's first employees and worked for a little more than $1 an hour. Despite the low pay, Johnson learned how to run a business while under Eaton's wing.

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Ferguson — a developer, politician and educator based in Michigan, according to WILX — owned a number of buildings in Michigan, one of which Johnson cleaned through Eaton's company when he was in middle school.

Johnson would spend much of his time in Ferguson's building imagining he was a CEO, he previously told Sports Illustrated.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without them as my mentors," Johnson tells PEOPLE. "[They are] two men that I looked up to, who showed this little Black boy from Lansing, Michigan, that you can have bigger dreams than just making it to the NBA."

Johnson also says it was the success of NBA players like Oscar Robertson and Dave Bing, who each started businesses outside of basketball, that solidified the idea he could do the same.

Joe Scarnici/Getty; Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Oscar Robertson (left) and Dave Bing

"Oscar Robertson, the 'Big O,' and Dave Bing are the two athletes that also showed me that we could own businesses," Johnson says. "Oscar had his construction company, and Dave had Bing Steel Company. So as two athletes, they paved the way for me, and then the other two guys jumpstarted that when I was 15 years old."

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Robertson is considered one of the greatest NBA players in history and is often remembered for his 1961-1962 performance where he averaged a triple-double for the entire season. Like Robertson, Bing was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and was known for his offensive prowess while in the NBA.

But for Johnson, the foundation they laid for players to transition from basketball into other ventures was where they influenced him the most.

"They're the reason I have my business," Johnson tells PEOPLE, "and why I'm doing the things that I'm doing today."