$155 Billion Company’s Faith in Magic Johnson After Tragic Announcement Helped Begin Billionaire Journey

Published 02/22/2024, 10:39 PM EST

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Magic Johnson is celebrating an old friend. Former American Express CEO Ken Chenault is an icon of success for the African American community. The 5x NBA champion is showcasing some inspirational role models every day through his ‘Magnifying Black Magic‘ initiative and his friend made the cut. Chenault’s work at American Express isn’t a mere management lesson. Chenault uplifted many in his community too, including Magic Johnson during one of the hardest phases of his public life.

Ken Chenault and American Express were the first major company to partner with me after my hiv announcement. I will always hold deep gratitude and love in my heart towards him for believing in me and helping jumpstart my business career,” Johnson wrote on his Instagram Stories. Along with sharing Chenault’s profile, he shared a personal picture with the former American Express CEO too.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson disclosed he was HIV-positive in November 1991. He retired from his NBA career just after reaching the NBA Finals with that announcement. Though he’d have sporadic returns to basketball, he turned to a multi-faceted career. Endorsements and a varying business empire were a huge part of his success that made him the fourth billionaire-athlete in 2023.


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The Los Angeles Lakers icon’s relationship with Chenault and the $155 billion worth AmEx goes way back. According to a 1998 profile, Johnson’s endorsement career was stalled for a while after his HIV announcement. However, Magic has proven that his diagnosis is not the life-ending sentence everyone used to think it was. In a few years, riding off his Olympian success, he was endorsing the benefits of owning an American Express card.

The ad spot is one of the most famous ones in marketing history. It showed snippets of Magic’s unforgettable career, including former NBA commissioner David Stern’s comments on him. It was part of a series that also included fashion mogul, Vera Wang, snowboarding icon, Jake Burton, and golf legend, Tiger Woods. But that wasn’t all for Magic.


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Magic Johnson does the unexpected

Along with AmEx, Adolph Coors enlisted him to advertise responsible drinking. He was one of the first to recognize Starbucks’ potential and got in as an investor and endorser. Eventually, he opened TGI Friday’s franchises. His comeback through AmEx was so potent, that he launched a syndicated (but short-lived) talk show, The Magic Hour, with his sponsors.

According to his agent, many brands were eager to sign him but Magic was selective about his partnerships. In the ’90s, it was unprecedented to think Magic Johnson could mount a comeback to public life. But with the support of his loved ones and friends like Chenault, he was able to increase the acceptance of HIV-positive people in society.


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AmEx aligned with Johnson’s health advocacy in that regard. Together, they participated in an annual HIV/AIDS fundraiser in California as a corporate sponsor. In 1998, AmEx also donated $2.2 million to the cause. It’s a success story like no other and deserves to be ‘magnified.’


Written by:

Caroline John


One take at a time

Caroline John is a senior NBA writer at EssentiallySports. She holds a Masters degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from a reputed university. With 8 years of experience in content writing and after judiciously covering the life of Shaquille O’Neal, she even earned an exclusive interview with the CEO of Shaq’s Big Chicken franchise, Josh Halpern.
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Edited by:

Pragya Vashisth