Magic Johnson discusses video phones, Celtics-Lakers rivalry and today's NBA

Basketball legend uses Cisco videoconferencing to communicate, cut costs on plane travel

Magic Johnson's businesses rely on Cisco TelePresence videoconferencing to communicate, cut costs on plane travel.

Magic Johnson is no expert on the IT industry, but he knows when technology makes him more productive and cuts costs.

The Hall of Fame basketball player turned author and entrepreneur humbly describes his various organizations as a "small business." In reality, the founder of Magic Johnson Enterprises and the Magic Johnson Foundation oversees employees in 22 states and 91 cities with coffee shops, restaurants, fitness centers and charitable enterprises.

Managing such far-flung facilities and employees is a challenge, so Johnson turned to Cisc about eight months ago for its videoconferencing technology and IP phones. (Compare collaboration products.)  

Magic Johnson using Cisco telepresence technology

"It has saved us a lot of money," says the 6' 9" former point guard with five championship rings. "A lot of plane flights, a lot of booking hotels, on and on and on. Over time it is going to save us millions of dollars and millions of man hours."

Johnson made his comments during a press conference held over Cisco's immersive TelePresence videoconferencing system on Friday. While Johnson sat and talked in Los Angeles, sports and tech reporters from Boston and New York listened and asked questions ranging from the role of technology in his business to the state of today's NBA and his legendary rivalry with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics.

While Johnson himself hasn't purchased the high-end TelePresence product, Cisco has outfitted his home and company with small desktop and laptop-based videoconferencing systems. Johnson and his employees have IP phones attached to personal cameras and video screens so they can see the people are speaking with. With Cisco WebEx Connect, employees can collaborate online and share documents, and Johnson says Cisco set up his staff with mobile phones.

"I can have meetings from home that I never could before. The wear and tear on my body is now better because I don't have to get on as many planes as I used to," Johnson says. "Things happen faster, quicker. We're more effective."

The Cisco deployment also allowed consolidation of the Magic Johnson Enterprises network for voice, data and wireless communications, a Cisco press release says. This has doubled data capacity for a network which had reached maximum usage levels, making the uploading of videos to Web sites quite slow.

Upgrading technology was Johnson's top priority this year. "Our [business] deals were on one level but our technology was not where our deals were," Johnson says. "We needed to make sure we brought our technology up to where our deal flow was." Johnson still believes the first meeting with a potential client should be conducted in person, but that subsequent meetings can be handled remotely.

Besides running his "Magic Johnson" businesses, the 49-year-old has written a book about succeeding in business and is writing a book with Bird about the players' rivalry and friendship.

"We're finishing up the book. We had an interview [via videoconferencing] at 6:00 in the morning at my house. We were connected and it was just seamless," Johnson says.

Johnson has advised NBA players about transitioning to the business world, such as Grant Hill, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox. He tells them to work hard and avoid surrounding themselves with yes-men and buddies who lack business acumen.

"Number one is the work ethic," Johnson says. "If you look at Larry Bird and myself, we couldn't run faster than anybody else, we couldn't jump higher than anyone else. Our thing was we were always going to outwork you and out-think you. Our great skills were the knowledge of the game. I carried that over into business to make sure I was very prepared."

Johnson says he has focused on bringing amenities like Starbucks coffee and quality fitness clubs to urban communities, and started programs to retrain out-of-work minorities in places such as Michigan, where jobs have been cut in the struggling automotive industry. Johnson's $2 billion Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund claims to be "the country's largest private equity fund focused solely on the revitalization of American's densely populated, ethnically diverse communities." Separately, the Magic Johnson Foundation has given more than $1.1 million to HIV/AIDS education and prevention efforts and established four HIV clinics, a cause that hits close to home for Johnson since being diagnosed with the virus in 1991.

Inevitably, Johnson touched on a number of basketball issues during Friday's TelePresence meeting. Johnson was asked if the Lakers would have beaten the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals if he were still in his prime and suiting up every night.

"With Kobe and that team? And no Larry? Yeah, of course," Johnson says. "You're talking about one of the greatest teams that ever played. If you take Larry Bird's Celtics with McHale and Parish and D.J., that Celtics team you've got now don't even win a game in a series. It's 4-0. You can't stop that front line. … As much as I love Paul Pierce, Larry Bird is the man."

Magic was then asked whether he or Bird would win in a one-on-one matchup when both were in the primes of their careers.

"Larry bird was a better one-on-one player than I was," Johnson says. "He'd probably win that. I'm not built on one-on-one. I was built on team and getting guys into the right position, making sure we were doing what we were supposed to do.

"You take me, you take Michael Jordan, both of them are going to beat me as far as one-on-one. But you take us team-wise, I'm going to beat them because I'm going to get my team going. I'm a leader. They did what they had to do to help their teams win, I did what I had to do to help my team win. So I'm never going to beat any of those guys one-on-one, Dr. J., Dominique. That's what they did. That wasn't my game. But I'm OK with that, you know."

Discussing the current NBA, Johnson said the resurgence of the Celtics and Lakers is helping the league expand its audience. Those two franchises plus the Knicks have the three biggest fan bases in the league, Johnson says. "If we can get the Knicks back, the league would really be booming," he says.

Unfortunately for fans in Seattle, the SuperSonics franchise moved to Oklahoma City this year, in what Johnson worries could be the beginning of a trend.

"It really hurt the league to have Seattle move to Oklahoma, because of the fact the Sonics were so loved there," Johnson says. "What's going to happen is other franchises that are struggling will probably look to move as well."

The economy has affected Johnson's own businesses. His coffee shops are doing just OK, and one of his fitness centers started offering month-to-month plans to lure customers, he says.

"We're going to have to look to new business practices," Johnson says. "You have to adjust to the economy. We've done that and we will continue to do that."

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