They Call Me Magic
The National Basketball Association was a very different place at the end of the 1970s than the glamorous, icon-filled entity that it is today. Considered too drug-infested and too “thuggish”, the matches were on tape delay, meaning primetime television did not deem the sport significant enough for live broadcast into every household in America. All that was about to change with the 1980s and the arrival of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. They Call Me Magic documents the life and career of the NBA star, from the meteoric rise to conflicts on the court to the turning of the tide when he contracted HIV during the AIDS crisis.
The series follows a familiar formula, starting with Johnson’s early years pounding the concrete courts in Lansing, Michigan, before proceeding on to the years of his draft to the Los Angeles Lakers and beyond. But just as Earvin “Magic” Johnson is synonymous with the sport of basketball, he is also renowned for the other major share of his life that was and is to this day, still equally as publicised – his battle with HIV – making They Call Me Magic more than just a simply biographical series. He is a man known to be an open book, but what we discover with each passing episode is that Magic is a character, and behind the camera-loving façade is a different man called Erving, self-aware of his mistakes and humbled by the exciting but intense life he has lived.
NBA documentaries are the flavour of the month following the critical and resounding success of Netflix’s The Last Dance in 2020, and the key to that success is a high stakes plot injected with funny, flavoursome humour and snappy editing. They Call Me Magic does fundamentally have all of these ingredients. Visually, the series is an engaging joyride, really setting the scene showing 1980s California in all its sun-washed glory and it beggars belief how the producers managed to scoop the finest in the business to feature as talking heads, a list that includes family members, fans, teammates and celebrity friends such as Snoop Dogg, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and of course Johnson himself, who takes on a large chunk of the narration.
The main question lies over whether this needed to be a four-part instalment. Each episode rewinds the clock, jumping between childhood and the more current events, connecting the dots throughout. It could be said a two-hour feature film may have sufficed, but certain historical elements would have to be removed. There is a poetry around reliving sporting moments, and this extra detail should be valued since it is interesting, but what is more powerful is the turn the series takes upon Johnson’s HIV diagnosis. For him, his family and his career it was distressing, but what is most beautiful is how he embraced it and became an icon and a leader for a community. They Call Me Magic is, if anything, a powerful tribute to the man, and something that NBA fans at least should rally behind.
They Call Me Magic is released on Apple TV+ on 22nd April 2022.
Watch the trailer for They Call Me Magic here: