Earvin “Magic” Johnson was due to arrive in North Texas just before 10:30 a.m. CST. That meant he had to be in flight around 5:30 a.m. PST for the Family Gateway’s Gateway to Opportunity Luncheon on Friday, October 19, at the Omni Dallas Hotel. And his stay couldn’t be too long, because he also had to be in Milwaukee for the L.A. Dodgers playoff game No. 6 against the Brewers that night. Was it because he was that big a baseball fan? You might say. After all, he is one of the owners of the Dodgers.
But back to the fundraiser presented by Metro by T Mobile. While organizers had juggled preparations with limited time for Johnson’s appearance, all plans were locked tighter than gel nails.
Oops, that was until they checked out Dallas Ballroom Section C. Three steps into the room, and noses were as erect as meerkats on alert. Immediately a hotel staffer with a bottle walked the room spritzing to the satisfaction of relieved nostrils just minutes before hundreds of guests queued up for the meet-and-greet with Magic.
As the herd of 40 groups gathered around the perimeter of the room, the guests were briefed on their marching… or rather meeting… orders. No small talk. Put purses and cellphones on the table before entering the designated photo area. No second takes. Hustle, hustle, hustle.
There was a schedule that required that no more than 40 groups were to be photographed with Johnson in 20 minutes. To make sure the demands were met, a team had been created. One person would check guests in and make sure there were no purses or cellphones. The second person would give the go-ahead for the guests to line up with Johnson. The third person would hustle them on their way. Of course, there were some hiccups, like the gal who couldn’t help herself and locked her arms around Magic, the adorable youngster — 12-year-old Cole Levy — with the L.A. Lakers t-shirt that stopped the parade with Magic insisting on signing the shirt, and the final group including Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki’s wife Jessica Nowitzki.
Recognizing Jessica, Magic stopped in his tracks and gave her a hug of gratitude to share with her husband.
As soon as the meet-and-greet was over, Magic quickly exited the room for the lunch.
The room that had been teeming with people was now empty. But that wasn’t the case in Dallas Ballroom Sections A and B that was filling with people like Lee Ann White, Tracy Lange, Tiffany Divis, Michael Faircloth, David Davis, Clay Cooley with the Cooley gals (Bela Cooley and Ciara Cooley), Ken Betts, Joyce Goss, Christie Carter, Tanya Foster, Lynn McBee, Kara Goss, Selwyn Razor and Rich Moses, Kristina Mosley and Stacy and David Sanderson.
Because the schedule was firmly in place, the program was designed to allow Johnson to appear onstage near the start. Just after Gateway Executive Director Ellen Magnis thanked the committee and sponsors, she gave a brief explanation of the 30-year-old nonprofit helping homeless families get back on their feet. It is one of the only organizations that can take in an entire family immediately, she said, adding that the problem is only growing. In the past, Gateway monthly received 300 calls for help and was able to place 40 families. In August, that number hit 800 calls, with 150 families being placed. They focus their services on 1,100 families sleeping in cars or on the last day of living in hotels.
It was now time for Johnson to take over. With mic in hand, he told the crowd that the stage was actually meant for short people, so in his case it wouldn’t be necessary. Taking his place in the middle of the ballroom to the total delight of hundreds of guests, he started off recalling his childhood in a “poor family” of six sisters and three brothers. Not only was he the youngest son, he was also the tallest. As the clothes were handed down from older brothers to Magic, he went to school and “it didn’t look too good for me.” He added that he had a reading problem in sixth grade. For him, it was a school counselor who told him that he had to take extra reading courses to overcome this challenge, so he could “function in life.”
Magic said that the real blessing in life was helping others to achieve their goals. He then added that that was exactly what Family Gateway was doing — helping families to get out of homelessness and on the right track.
He called Cole to join him for a selfie. Then Magic told how the world’s greatest basketball player and his mother had lived in a car. He was talking about LeBron James. Somebody had helped him. Michael Jordan had gotten cut the first time he tried out for his high school basketball team. The coach took him aside and worked with him. The next year he made it.
After a chest-bump, Cole went back to his seat and Magic called a couple of other boys — Sam and MJ — to talk with him along with another photo and chest bumps.
Magic told how as a kid he did plenty of chores like carrying groceries, mowing lawns and shoveling snow to clear driveways. At the end of the week, he would give what he had earned to his mother, who would divide it among all nine children: “They were happy, but I was upset.” The lesson that his mother taught was, you’ve always got to give back.
He once again turned it back to Family Gateway and asked the entire board to stand up and rallied the other guests to show their appreciation. Ah, but this was just a build-up of what was to come.
Magic called Cole back up and started chewing the fat about the Dodgers and Dallas-native/Dodgers’ pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Just this season they had been the only team to sell 3 million tickets before the season even started.
But then the subject turned to raising some money for Family Gateway. Magic revealed that he had a floor seat, two seats at half court and four seats behind the Lakers bench for the Laker home games. He was going to auction them off for a Dallas Mavericks or Houston Rockets game when they were in L.A.You could almost feel the air being sucked out of the room. “We’re gonna start at $5,000 and go up from there,” Magic told Cole. Someone yelled out that Cole’s mother had been the first hand up.
Event Co-Chair Gina Betts’ jaw nearly hit the table and Co-Chair Lisa Cooley‘s look appeared to say, “This wasn’t on the schedule, was it?”
Within minutes, a couple of bidders were vying for the win nearing $20,000. With a twinkle in his eye, Johnson said he would make it a double offer if the bidders would cough up $20,000 each. Without hesitation, the deals were sealed for $40,000. If Johnson ever wants a sideline job, he’d be a great auctioneer. He was cool, entertaining and giving back.
Family Gateway staffers and volunteers said they had had no idea he was going to make this offer.
But he wasn’t through telling Cole that anytime he came to L.A., Magic was going to give Cole his two half court seats “and I’m gonna hook you up at Disneyland, too.” More jaws were dropping. As an aside, he added that one of the businesses he owns is a food service company, with two of its accounts being Disneyland and Disney World — “So Mickey and Minnie eat my food.”
Looking up at the stage where Lisa Cooley had escorted Family Gateway client Derrick Golette Sr. and his son Derrick “DJ” Golette Jr., Magic asked DJ, “Guess what? You gonna come to LA and see me, too.” Lisa said she was gonna make it happen. Magic responded to Lisa saying, “You got that lovely Chanel on. I’m not even gonna mess with you. You’ve already been to L.A. and back.”
Before leaving he asked Dirk’s Jessica to stand up and told her, “Tell him (Dirk) to get back on the court because we need that one-leg jump.”
While Derek Sr. told how he and his family had struggled until they found Family Gateway and their lives had changed, Magic was on his way to the airport. But he left something behind: the “magic” touch to help Family Gateway families.