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Magic Johnson talks Lakers and business at Genius Talks

LOS ANGELES — Earvin “Magic” Johnson has been quiet — for him — in the two months since he stepped down as head of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers.

But the basketball star turned entrepreneur was his talkative self June 22 when he stopped by Black Entertainment Television’s Genius Talks at L.A. Live! hosted by Jemele Hill as part of the three-day BET Extravaganza at the Los Angeles Convention Center that featured concerts, fashion shows, celebrities and sporting events.

Johnson shared the Genius Talk stage with “Boomerang” executive producer Lena Waithe, “Black-ish” and “Grown-ish” star Yara Shahidi and “Little” and “Black-ish” star Marsai Martin.

The Genius Talks, moderated by Jemele Hill, was part of a three-day BET extravaganza held at the Los Angeles Convention Center

A jovial Johnson strolled on stage and kicked off the segment by talking about Anthony Davis, who recently was traded to the Lakers.

“LeBron is still, you know, the best in basketball,” Johnson said. “And I think that when you put another superstar with him, an Anthony Davis, both of them will allow each other now to really play their game and dominate, because what happens, the floor will open up.

“And LeBron is such an incredible passer and driver, and he always makes his teammates better,” Johnson added. “So look for Anthony really to have probably one of his greatest seasons.”

Johnson, who recently stepped down as president of basketball operations for the Lakers, said that basketball will always remain a part of his life.

“I love basketball and I could watch it every single day, but my next dream was to be a businessman and to take those tight shorts off,” he said. “They thought I was a dumb jock. They’d say, ‘Come on in, I want a picture of you for my son, but you don’t know business.’

“Other people said, ‘Man, you’re crazy to invest in the black community.’ But I saw $3 trillion and no competition, and I said, ‘I think I could be successful.’”

In talking about his business success, Johnson said he built a team of the most experienced African Americans he could find to learn about the business world.

“I got the best accountants, the best managers, the best agents I could find because I wanted to learn and understand about [business] and money,” he said.

“I did a deal with Sony to help build theaters. The first one built in Los Angeles’ (Baldwin Hills) turned out to be one of the top grossing theaters in America,” he said.

“Then I knocked on the door of Howard Schultz’s Starbucks. I said, “Black and brown people drink coffee, too.”

After impressing Schultz with his knowledge of the tremendous buying power of African Americans, Johnson went on to open 125 Starbucks across the country.

“That put the stamp on me as (being) a serious businessman,” Johnson said.

“By 2040, America will be half minority,” Johnson said. “Other people are going to invest money in the minority market because they see the demographics changing.”

In an effort to support other minority owned businesses, Johnson said he has invested in 10 budding tech companies founded by young African-American and Hispanic entrepreneurs.

“Silicon Valley still won’t invest in our businesses,” he said. “But if we continue to write checks for young people with great ideas, it will help to produce more jobs in our community.”  

Johnson also urged the audience to get out and vote in 2020 and to continue to pursue education.

“Without an education, we are going to be left behind,” he said. “The technical and the health care fields are growing and that is where the jobs are.”

Screenwriter, producer and actress Lena Waithe waved to the audience as she walked onstage. Waithe, who is working on her upcoming thriller “Queen and Slim,”made history in 2017 by becoming the first African-American woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work on “Master of None.”

The outspoken executive producer of the upcoming movie “Boomerang” and creator of the television show “The Chi” recently delivered a frank interview with the New York Times and found herself mired in controversy after claiming that Denzel Washington and Will Smith should invest more of their money in black films.

The comments caused a firestorm of protest on Twitter, with critics pointing out that Washington produced the highly acclaimed movie “Fences and the upcoming August Wilson adaptation for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Pausing, she added, “Look, Will, Denzel, I have a relationship with both camps, no shade no tea, I was just texting with Jada (Pinkett Smith, wife of Will Smith) — everybody’s fine,” Waithe said.

“But ultimately, I’m saying for anybody who has money [and is] black, I think should be held to finance at least one or two black filmmakers trying to make their first film. I just think it’s important because then what will happen is we’re keeping the well within our community.”

Waithe, whose production company is called Hillman Grad, pointed out that part of the problem is that there are still not enough black film financiers in Hollywood. “How many of those do we have?” she asked.

“I know that it is difficult to walk into a room of white financiers trying to explain why this particular black story should be told,” she added. “I’m over here trying to build a community, and I don’t see other people doing it.

“I really do feel like there’s a way for us to change the movie business from the inside out, but we’re all in our own silos doing our own thing.”

Yara Shahidi, 19, plays Zoey Johnson on the critically acclaimed “Black-ish,” and has been offered her own spin-off show, “Grown-ish,” which depicts her character dealing with the fun and foibles of being in college.

Shahidi, who has an interest in politics, founded Eighteen by 18, which is a platform to encourage her peers to vote in the upcoming elections.

“The best co-sign I heard you received is from Oprah who said that one day you would run for president,” Hill told her.

“It’s just surreal. I’ve gotten so much intergenerational support. I’m grateful on a daily basis,” Shahidi responded without saying if there was a presidential bid in her future.

Fourteen-year-old Marsai Martin smiled broadly as she walked onstage to thunderous applause. Martin, who plays the precocious Diane Johnson on “Black-ish,” recently made history by becoming the youngest executive producer in Hollywood by bringing the comedy “Little” to the big screen.

Martin said “Little” is about an overbearing boss who is taken back to her childhood days. Martin was only 10 when she came up with the concept for “Little,” which was inspired by the film “Big,” starring Tom Hanks.

“We told Kenya Barris (creator of “Black-ish”) about the idea and he called (film producer) Will Packer. That’s how it started,” Martin said. “A few weeks go by. Will Packer said, ‘What happened to that idea?’ We went to his office and started talking about it.”

The project features an all-black cast, including Issa Rae and Regina Hall. Martin not only acted in the film, but served as executive producer.

“As a black woman, you don’t see us in a positive space,” said Martin, who would win the Young Stars Award at the 2019 BET Awards later that night. “You see a negative figure. I feel like we need to see more of us in a positive state in projects that are well-written and well-done,” she said.

Martin now heads her own production company called Genius Productions.

“It’s cool and surreal,” Martin said. “It’s a place where I can be myself and be creative and have a great time with my team. We all work as a family.”

Martin then told a story about meeting one of her idols.

“I was at the White House in about 2015, 2016,” she said. “Beyonce, Jay Z and Blue Ivy were in a tent. Everybody knew that I was a huge Beyonce fan. I came to the tent. Beyonce looked at me and I looked at her and I nearly blacked out.  I was freaking out, but I had to keep my cool. It was the queen!”