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Magic Johnson launches movement to combat high school dropout rate

Haman Cross 18 student Magic JohnsBridgescape Academy 3222 W. Roosevelt Rd. Chicago hugs Earv'Magic' JohnsWednesday launch Friends Magic organization.

Haman Cross, 18, a student at the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy, at 3222 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Chicago, hugs Earvin "Magic" Johnson on Wednesday at the launch of the Friends of Magic organization. | Ashlee Rezin~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 20, 2013 7:37AM

Listening to 18-year-old Haman Cross speak, you’d never know he was a dropout.

“I enrolled at MJBA because I needed the bridge to cross the gap between traditional schooling and a diploma,” the North Lawndale teen told an audience held rapt, drawn to the West Side by the star power of Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

“The exuberance the advisers bring forth every day makes it easier to achieve the goals I’ve set,” Cross said of his school, Bridgescape Academy, 3210 W. Roosevelt, filled Wednesday with celebrities and media from across the globe.

“Mr. Johnson, you are an inspiration not only to me, but the world at large,” he said.

Ending his speech, Cross — who had been homeschooled, floundered, then enrolled at the Chicago Public Schools alternative school operated by Magic Johnson Enterprises and EdisonLearning, Inc. — said he’s determined to go to college.

Already proving among the school’s brightest, he was chosen to introduce the NBA Hall of Famer, who was in town Wednesday to launch “Friends of Magic,” a new movement to combat the national high school dropout epidemic.

As the dapper 54-year-old came to the podium, it was clear the youth’s intelligence and determination had moved him.

“God is so good,” said the retired L.A. Lakers’ No. 32, choking back tears.

“All the time,” chimed in Johnson’s buddy, rapper/actor and Chicago native Common.

“I’ve been so blessed in my life,” Johnson continued. “All you want to do is help these incredible young people achieve their goals in life. Young man, you’ve changed. You’re headed in the right direction.”

With that he promised Cross a scholarship to pay for college, drawing applause.

The basketball superstar-turned-business powerhouse chose Chicago to launch his effort to create a network of foundations, businesses and individuals providing help to dropouts and at-risk teens to stay in or return to high school.

“Friends of Magic” will offer tutoring, mentoring and jobs, a formula advocated by local groups such as the Black Star Project, which this spring spearheaded a mass black male graduation ceremony to combat dropout rates with mentoring and jobs.

Students who filled the desks at the West Side academy — one of two Johnson is to open here this year, the other on the South Side — were mostly black males, who in CPS have the highest dropout rate: about 1 in 8 in 2010.

CPS’ 2013 graduation rate is 65.4 percent up from 61.2 percent in 2012.

“Everywhere I go, I’m asked, ‘What are you all going to do about the violence going on with Chicago youth?’ It’s through efforts like this that we’ll get our children off the streets,” said Common, whose mother, Mahalia Hines, a longtime CPS educator and Board of Education appointee, sat in the front row.

Johnson noted that he and Common differ from many of today’s teens because they were raised by two parents, but he said he identifies with them in growing up poor.

His father, Earvin Sr., was a General Motors assembly worker, along with other jobs; his mother, Christine, a school custodian. He had six siblings.

“There were times I hated playing basketball because I’d get home late and there’d only be one piece of cornbread left. Oftentimes, we’d have peanut butter but no jelly, Kool-Aid, but no sugar,” Johnson said.

A standout in high school and college, he was drafted by the Lakers in 1979, winning his first NBA championship, with four more to follow in the 80s.

He played with the Lakers until 1991 — when he stunned the world with the announcement that he had contracted HIV. He came back and played two more times before a third and final retirement at 36.

Since then, he has become an advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex. His Magic Johnson Foundation operating HIV/AIDS Awareness & Prevention Programs, Community Empowerment Centers and the Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program.

He also has become one of the world’s best-known, successful entrepreneurs, with myriad business interests focused primarily on ethnically diverse and underserved urban communities through alliances, investments and endrosements.

“I was all about basketball until I was 16 years old and met two black businessmen in Lansing, Mich. Everybody used to tell me they owned buildings and car dealerships, and I said, ‘What? We can do that?’ ” Johnson said.

“The day I met them, I changed my whole thought process. I just didn’t want to play basketball. I wanted to also be a businessman one day.”

Johnson’s business interests today include Best Buy, Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness, MJ Theatres and T.G.I.F. restaurants; as well as Canyon Johnson, a $1 billion dollar real estate fund; Yucaipa Johnson, a $500 million dollar private equity fund; ASPIRE, a new black TV network; SodexoMAGIC and Magic Airport Holdings; Inner City Broadcasting Corp.; Detroit Venture Partners, and Vibe Holdings, which houses the Vibe, Uptown and Soul Train brands.

He was part owner of the Lakers for several years, and among a group of investors that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers last year.

With EdisonLearning, he operates 17 Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academies in six states, with 10 planned for Chicago.

“I know I’m blessed, and I know what my purpose in life is, and that’s to the black and brown communities across this country,” Johnson said.

“When I met those two guys, they mentored me. It’s why I’m a businessman today. I owe it all to them. If those guys could do that for me, think what we can do for some of these young people today. That’s what ‘Friends of Magic’ is about.”

Twitter: @Maudlynei

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