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Magic's kingdom

He's not roaming the hardwood anymore, but Earvin Johnson is just as magical off the basketball court.

Johnson will go down in history as one of the NBA's greatest players -- he won five NBA titles, three Most Valuable Player Awards and was a first-ballot inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame -- but the legendary Los Angeles Laker is building an equally impressive legacy in the business world.

Just as he changed the game of basketball with his no-look passes and his fastbreak pace, and much like the NBA used his infectious smile and bubbling personality to make the league the internationally popular sport that it has become today, Johnson has put his high-fiving, Showtiming charisma to work in the boardroom where he has proven to corporate executives time and again that there is money to be made in the inner-city.

A Starbucks in South Central L.A.? A 24-hour workout facility in Oakland? A multi-screen movie theater in Harlem?

What once seemed like money-losing propositions that sent Corporate America scurrying off to the tonier sides of town, Johnson has produced money-making opportunities worthy of chronicling on the front pages of business magazines.

And just as he changed the way basketball is played, he is changing the way that athletes invest their money.

"I've had a ball, and I've been successful," said Johnson, who was honored by American Express on Thursday and now has his own 17-foot statue outside L.A.'s Staples Center. "We've made a lot of money and now you see other players like (Shaquille O'Neal), Keyshawn Johnson and some of the other players that follow what I've done already."

O'Neal, the Lakers' bigger-than-life presence of today, followed the Magic formula five years ago and invested in a real estate venture in New Jersey, near the Newark housing project where he grew up as a child. Last August, American Housing Preservation Corporation, a company that O'Neal has a stake in, purchased 21 low-income housing communities in Colorado worth nearly $100 million.

Keyshawn Johnson followed Magic into South Central Los Angeles and invested more than $1 million in real estate projects near where he grew up. He helped to fund the first new shopping center to open in the area since the 1992 riots, the Chesterfield Square Mall, where one of Magic's Starbucks franchises leases space. Partnering with Los Angeles developer Capital Vision Equities, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver recently invested in a $123 million retail project that will connect to one of Magic's 12-screen movie theaters.

Still, Magic remains without peer among athletes in the business community.

"Nobody is where Magic is," said Jerome Stanley, Keyshawn Johnson's agent. "Magic is so far ahead that if he looked behind him he wouldn't see anyone around."

Over the past 10 years, Johnson has built an estimated $700 million portfolio, demanding no less than a 50 percent stake in every business that seeks his involvement. As the only franchisee of Starbucks, he now owns 58 coffee stores across the country. He controls five 12-screen Loews theaters, two TGI Friday's restaurants, has his name on five 24-Hour Fitness facilities and soon will have his image associated with 15 home loan centers at Washington Mutual banks across the country.

But it is his real estate holdings in the inner-cities that have turned the heads of venture capitalists, sports agents and athletes alike. Through a partnership with Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, a Los Angeles-based investment firm with more than $4.5 billion in assets, Johnson's company has purchased millions of square feet in eight urban areas from Hollywood, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y., to build and revitalize shopping centers and housing complexes in inner-city neighborhoods.

The beneficiary of the success of projects like these is not only the urban communities that Johnson and his partners invest in, but also to Johnson himself, a model of a positive bottom line that could alter the way athletes give back to their hometown area in the future.

"We are definitely looking to duplicate the Magic model with our players in other markets," said agent Bill Duffy, who represents several top NBA players. "We're hoping to go into urban communities in Baltimore with Carmelo (Anthony) and in those areas in Oakland with Antonio Davis and Drew Gooden."

Ken Lombard, president of Magic Johnson Development Corp., said he believes "more and more athletes will do the things Magic has done" since the upside for business and community relations is so appealing. "But they should know that it's a very difficult thing to execute," Lombard warns.

"Companies were treating the inner-city as if it were a foreign country," said Lombard, who gave a talk to players at an NBA Players Association meeting a few years ago. "It was almost like they would rather go internationally to do their business. But the key in both cases to being successful was finding a local partner who knew the intricacies -- certain customs, the language barrier -- and would be able to translate the business model to a new area."

As one of 10 children who grew up in a depressed area of Lansing, Mich., Johnson knew how to do that. His Starbucks stores offer a variety of ethnic favorites, including cobblers and pies. The menus at his TGI Friday's in Los Angeles and Atlanta have more fried foods than the restaurant chain's other franchises around the country.

"I think the key to doing business in urban America is just understand that it is a different customer than everywhere else," Johnson said.

"Understand that you have to hire people from those communities to work in your business," he explained. "A lot of the times companies want to go in but don't want to hire people from those communities -- and you set yourself up to fail. Those people know the customer, they know what the customer wants, how they want it, and then that employee will spread the word."

America's inner-cities have $85 billion in annual spending power. As much as 30 percent of it is untapped by major businesses because of a hesitancy to go into so-called, high-risk areas, said Deirdre Coyle, senior vice president for the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, an advocacy group.

While consumers in inner-city communities may not spend as much per capita as those in upscale suburban areas, collectively they have significant buying power.

"It's more about groceries, clothing and shoes," Coyle said. "But when you add all that up, it's the largest retail opportunity in the world."

Much like how he could anticipate that a passing lane was about to open on the basketball court, Johnson saw there were lucrative business opportunities in the inner-city that went unnoticed by others.

"Now you see many quality retailers going into urban America because they know if they want to grow and if they want to expand their business they must do it through urban America," said Johnson, who also has a 5 percent ownership stake in the Lakers.

Former NBA star Terrell Brandon, who retired before the current season, ponied up $600,000 seven years ago to open up a Terrell Brandon Barbership and TB's Place, an urban fashion store, in his hometown neighborhood in Northeast Portland. Brandon is now looking to bring a Starbucks or a Jamba Juice to the community and also plans to build a recording studio, said Duffy, his agent.

"Athletes can definitely help bring attractive businesses along that were afraid to go into these communities," Duffy said. "For so long, companies have said that areas like this were not safe to go into, but now the barriers are starting to fall."

Can other athletes successfully follow the Magic model without that Magic smile and the infrastructure he has surrounded himself? The citizens of the inner-city and the decision-makers of corporate America will be asking that question until some player comes close to following in Johnson's footsteps off the court.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com