Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong was standing on the Staples Center floor in the middle of group that includes Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, Jerry West, Kurt Rambis and A.C. Green.
The 59-year-old surgeon can hardly contain himself during a reception celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Magic Johnson Foundation as he mingled with the players and coaches he used to watch in the 1980s while he was a faculty member at the UCLA Medical School. Hardly any of the media members and photographers snapping pictures of the former Lakers greats knew who Soon-Shiong was as they moved past him.
That’s the way he likes it. He rarely does interviews and never addressed the media when he bought Johnson’s 4.5 percent minority stake in the Lakers. While he prefers not to be in the spotlight, it’s hard to keep a low-profile when you are the richest man in Los Angeles and one of the 40 richest men in the country with a net worth of over $7 billion.
The physician, businessman and philanthropist has made his fortune by playing a primary role in cutting-edge treatments for a wide variety of cancers. He is a self-made billionaire who was born and raised in South Africa during apartheid to Chinese immigrant parents, who fled from China during World War II. He would graduate from high school when he was 16 and receive his medical degree when he was 23 before moving to Los Angeles.
I caught up with Dr. Soon-Shiong this week and asked him how he became a Lakers fan, how he came to purchase a minority stake in the team and how being an owner has changed the way he watches games.
Markazi: As someone who is involved in medicine and health care and also a Lakers fan who has gotten to know Magic Johnson personally, what was the significance of him celebrating not only 20 years of his foundation but 20 years since he contracted HIV?
Soon-Shiong: It was incredibly significant. Earvin is an icon in terms of leadership from a humanitarian perspective, leadership in terms of courage, and leadership in actually demonstrating how you can overcome adversity with regard to his illness and also sharing what he does for the good of the community. I’ve gotten to know him and his family, his wife and his children, and they are truly such an incredible example to the nation.
Markazi: How long have you been a Lakers fan?
Soon-Shiong: I’ve been a Lakers fan for over 25 years and I’ve been going to games since 1980 when they were at the Forum. This is when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the captain and Magic Johnson just joined the team and Michael Cooper was there and later James Worthy. Those were the days. I think they’re the most exciting and the best organization in basketball. I’ve been a fan since I first saw them.
Markazi: What made you purchase Magic Johnson’s minority stake in the Lakers?
Soon-Shiong: Everybody knew I was such a big Lakers fan and I play basketball myself personally a lot. I got to know Earvin Johnson and Earvin’s people and I started talking and this opportunity became available and we had a very quick handshake agreement and that was that. It happened as fast as that. It was something I was happy to do and it was really that fast.
Markazi: Now that you’re a co-owner of the Lakers, do you watch the team differently?
Soon-Shiong: Nothing has really changed. My passion for the game is still strong. What has been exciting for me is to get more insight into how hard the players work, how hard the coaches work and how hard the organization works to really be at the top of their profession. I have been so impressed by their work ethic. We as fans come out and watch the games and it’s exciting but we don’t realize how much work is being put in on a daily basis by the coach and the players and the staff. [Being a owner] has made me more appreciative of the professional efforts that are being put into what you see in the games.
Markazi: You sit courtside at the games while Dr. Jerry Buss, the team’s majority owner, sits up in a suite. What do you glean from a game by sitting so close?
Soon-Shiong: Not only do I sit courtside but I sit at this angle under the basket because that’s the best way to watch and to get the feel of the tempo for the game. The reason I sit courtside is because you really feel like you’re inside the game. You’re watching the game, you’re watching the players as they play, and you’re watching how hard these kids go under the basket. It’s incredible when you watch the athleticism and the nuances of the moves and the sounds are so different. It’s an incredible high to watch these professional athletes at the height of their capabilities and what they can do.
Markazi: Not that I’ll ever be able to sit in the best seat in the house, but what corner of the court offers the best view in the building?
Soon-Shiong: Earvin’s seats were right in the corner next to the Lakers bench. That really is an amazing view. We had courtside seats before, sitting closer to the free-throw line, which are great seats but I prefer watching the plays and watching the entire court so I can see the plays unfold back and forth.
Markazi: I heard you are a pro football fan as well. Would you be interested in being a part owner of an NFL team if they moved to Los Angeles?
Soon-Shiong: Yeah, if that were too happen, I’d look into that. I think this city deserves a football team as well.
Markazi: What has being an owner and sitting courtside at these games mean to you?
Soon-Shiong: Well, it was really an easy decision for me to be a part of the Lakers. It’s priceless. It is one of the few places where I truly get lost in the joy of the moment of that game. All of the stresses and all the responsibilities are gone. It allows me to enjoy these professional athletes and enjoy time with my family and enjoy time with the fans that are around there.