Magic Johnson exclusive: Why Tokyo 2020 is important for the world 

Magic Johnson won everything a player could dream of during his career. But even among the five NBA championships and countless awards, Johnson admits his participation at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games stands out as the “greatest sporting moment” of all.  

By Will Imbo
Picture by EMPICS Sport

Magic Johnson has been a part of some of the biggest moments in basketball history.

Yet for all the rings and accolades he won as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, winning Olympic gold at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, Johnson says, was "the greatest sporting moment" of his life.

No wonder Johnson can't wait for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to begin.

"The Olympic Games are the greatest sporting event I’ve played in and been a part of,” says Johnson, thinking back on his time as part of the USA’s fabled Dream Team.

“It was definitely the greatest sporting moment of my life."

Magic Johnson on Tokyo 2020

The five-time NBA champion knows better than most how the Olympic Games can positively impact people.

“I think it’s important. It’s important for the world because we all just sit back and we get to be entertained by the world’s greatest athletes,” Johnson said.

"I want to see the Olympic Games because I live for those moments. I live for the moments of seeing the swimming, you know. I just love how they have that build-up to when it is time to finally win the medals, that’s the greatest time. To see all these top, top athletes around the world perform on the biggest stage and all that hard work paying off.

“It’s a time, for me, that the world just stops to appreciate this type of talent.”

Magic Johnson: Olympics superfan

Before Johnson was entertaining the world at Barcelona - before he had even suited up at Michigan State University, in fact - he was glued to the T.V. as a youngster, riveted by the performances of world-class athletes at the Games.

“As a kid, I watched every Olympics - just as I do now,” Johnson says.

"Seeing some of the greatest athletes ever participate across all these sports, whether it’s track and field, swimming, boxing, basketball - I wanted to be a part of that.”

For a while, it seemed that Magic would miss out on his goal. Until the 1992 Olympics, NBA players were not permitted to compete at the Games.

In 1989, FIBA approved a rule change that allowed NBA players to compete in international tournaments, including the Olympics. That paved the way for the creation of the Dream Team and in 1991, then-NBA commissioner David Stern called Johnson, asking him if we would like to be a part of the U.S. team for the 1992 Olympic Games.

"I had to pick myself off the ground because I couldn’t believe that I was going to actually get to play in the Olympics,” said Johnson, laughing.

But once the shock wore off, Johnson got to work in helping recruit two other stars to the Dream Team: Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

“I’d always wanted to see what it would be like to play in a game with them,” Johnson said of fellow legends Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. “All of us on the same team.”

Magic and the Dream Team

The star-studded squad absolutely dominated their opposition en route to winning the gold medal, posting an average winning margin of 44 points per game, without calling a single timeout throughout the entire competition.

“It was the right type of talent. My job was to get the guys the ball and put them in a position they could score. So it wasn’t guys out there worrying about how many points they were going to score or how many shots they were going to take. The greatest thing about that team was that we were all unselfish, all we cared about was winning and getting that gold medal.”

According to Johnson, the team was not worried about losing games - the real challenges came at practice.

“We were so competitive against each other because that’s when you wanted to show guys that you could really play and that you weren’t going to take a step back from who you were playing against.

“We made it so much fun that normally Chuck Daly (Team USA’s head coach) had to stop the practice because we were playing so hard against one another and he said, ‘Hey, you guys have got to save this for the game’.”

“We did what we were there to do which was to entertain and show people how to play the game. We had the greatest basketball players in the world. It was just awesome - I still think about it today.”

When Johnson wasn’t busy with fiery practices or dismantling the Dream Team’s latest opponent, he would go and watch some of the other events at the Games.

“I was attending a lot of events while we [the Dream Team] were in Barcelona. I went to the track and field events, boxing, gymnastics - it was awesome to watch so many athletes compete.”

Johnson also credits his time at the Games in Barcelona for helping to forge his strong friendship with fellow Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.

"I spent so much time with Michael Jordan, we played cards every single night. We became great friends because of the Olympics and the Dream Team. If it wasn’t for the Dream Team, I probably wouldn’t be as close as I am with Michael today.”

Like his relationship with Jordan, Johnson also shared a close bond with fellow Olympian and basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

Magic's relationship with Kobe Bryant

Like his relationship with Jordan, Johnson also shared a close bond with fellow Olympian and basketball legend Kobe Bryan.

Despite being from different generations and playing in different eras, Johnson and Bryant bonded over a love for the Lakers (both players spent their entire NBA careers with the franchise), as well as a shared passion for the Olympic Games.

Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people, tragically lost his life in a helicopter accident in California in 2020.

Earvin 'Magic' Johnson addresses the crowd before Kobe Bryant has his #8 and #24 Los Angeles Lakers jerseys retired at Staples Center on December 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)
Picture by 2017 Getty Images

“We are still grieving today over his loss,” Johnson says. “The city still hasn’t healed, and it may never heal because of the impact he had on Los Angeles.

“Kobe was like a little brother to me. He was in the Laker family for 20 years as a player and was so dominant on the court, but with his personality and his platform, he was also dominant off it.

“He really believed in women’s sports and uplifting women’s sport and that was his passion, and also homelessness which is really running rabid here in Los Angeles,” Johnson said.

Bryant, in addition to being a five-time NBA champion, 18-time All-Star and MVP winner, won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S. men’s team at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Games.

The 2008 U.S. team, in particular, has drawn comparisons to the Dream Team, as the squad was comprised of elite superstars including Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwayne Wade.

But despite all of that talent, Johnson feels that no group will ever match the legacy of the 1992 U.S. team.

“No, there is no team that could match the Dream Team,” Johnson said, his laugh louder than ever.