DURHAM — Magic Johnson’s visit to Durham Tuesday had nothing to do with basketball, nor did he talk about his fight with HIV.
Instead, he talked to students at Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in Durham to encourage them and let them know that they, too, could succeed.
Eyes wide, some students stared as the 6-foot, 8-inch NBA legend made his way into their classroom wearing a blue suit and tie and a smile on his face. And although none of the students was old enough to have seen Earvin “Magic” Johnson play, most seemed excited to be in his presence.
Johnson, 54, told the students he was one of 10 children in a poor family living in one house in a poor neighborhood in Lansing, Mich., or the “hood.” He said he was the youngest of the four boys and had six sisters and was the first in his family to go to college. Johnson said many people doubted him along the way, but he persevered.
Durham’s Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, at 401 N. Driver St., is one of 13 around the country. It opened in August 2012 and contracted with Durham Public Schools. The school gives students who have dropped out of high school another option to complete their education, through personalized learning.
“This is important because the dropout rate in our community is so high right now,” Johnson said in an interview. “And if you don’t have an education, you could end up in prison, end up dead. You can’t take care of your family, and now you are on public assistance.
“Those are things we don’t want to happen because too many of our youth of color are in that position because of the dropout rate right now.”
Last week, the Department of Public Instruction released statistics showing the number of students dropping out of Durham Public Schools decreased by 11 percent from 362 to 323.
Johnson talked about his experiences becoming a businessman after his NBA career and how hard he had to study. He encouraged students to make sure they get their high school diploma so they could have opportunities like college or trade school.
“Your life will take off from here,” he said. “So continue to move forward. Continue to take your life in a positive direction, and things will come back to you.”
Johnson asked the students to ask him any questions. Some asked for advice. Some asked what inspired him. Johnson said he grew up like most of the students in the room but said the key for him was his dreams were not poor. He said he had mentors along the way. He reminded the students there would be challenges and naysayers, but told them to work hard.
Johnson is regarded as one of the best college and professional basketball players in history. He played his whole career for the Los Angeles Lakers and retired from the NBA in 1991 after announcing he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He has been a strong advocate for HIV prevention, helping to educate people in the ’90s of the potentially deadly virus.
Darion Ebron, a 12th-grade student, said before coming to Durham, he had trouble in South Carolina schools and decided to drop out.
Ebron, 20, said he felt like adversity followed him everywhere, in school and at home, one incident after another. He said he refused to get his GED and still wanted his high school diploma. He enrolled at Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy and is on track to graduate in June.
“It actually gave me a new start to progress in the way I want to progress without any boundaries or mishaps,” Ebron said. “It allowed me to really strive for what I want to do. The teachers and staff here helped me progress in my educational goals.”
Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1