In late-March 2007, Earvin "Magic" Johnson made his first ever contribution to a presidential campaign -- $2,300 to Barack Obama.
No formal endorsement accompanied the cash, but most political operatives thought that the famous Lakers point guard would be firmly in the corner of the first African-American to have a real shot at winning the presidency.
On August 28, Johnson made the second contribution of his life to a presidential candidate. This time, however, the recipient was Hillary Clinton. Johnson gave her $2,300 for the primary election and another $2,300 to use in the general election, if she won the Democratic nomination.
In addition, the contribution -- chickenfeed to someone of Magic's wealth -- was backed up with an all-star endorsement.
After Oprah Winfrey, the richest African-American in the country, announced that she would hold a September 6 fundraiser for Obama at her Santa Barbara home, Magic countered with an offer to host a Clinton fundraiser at his Los Angeles house on September 14. As the two candidates competed for the support of black luminaries, Johnson announced that co-chairs of his Hillary event included Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, musician Quincy Jones, and music executive Clarence Avant.
"Senator Hillary Clinton understands the domestic and international issues better than anyone," Johnson said in an August 12 press release announcing his fundraiser. "[Hillary] has the experience and knowledge to help lead our country and get us to a better place. We need a winner as our next president."
On December 17 and 18, Magic joined Bill and Hillary for a tour of Iowa. Speaking in Davenport, Johnson infuriated Obama supporters when he told the crowd, "You don't want somebody in there that is young or a rookie at politics" -- a direct dig at Obama.
What happened between Johnson's $2,300 contribution to Obama in March and his $4,600 donation to Clinton in August?
Over the summer, a seemingly unrelated series of events intervened.
In June, Johnson, who is an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur, began talks with billionaire Ron Burkle about forming a joint investment fund of $750 million or more to take advantage of the growing and lucrative markets in inner city and minority-owned businesses, according to Eric Holloman, president of Johnson's Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund.
Burkle has been one of Bill Clinton's closest friends and supporters. Burkle and Bill Clinton were often seen together in and around Los Angeles, and Clinton frequently stayed at Burkle's mansion, which was the scene of much-reported partying. Burkle gave Bill Clinton a lucrative consulting job as a senior advisor to his investment firm, Yucaipa Companies.
When Hillary announced, Burkle became a strong backer and encouraged Johnson to support her.
Now, spokesmen for both Burkle and Johnson flatly dispute that there is any connection whatsoever between the Burkle-Magic investment partnership and Magic's Hillary endorsement.
"There is no correlation at all between the [Johnson-Burkle] private equity fund and him backing Hillary Clinton," said Eric Holloman. "No one has told Earvin what to do since Pat Riley [former Lakers coach]. Earvin needs no more fame, no more money."
Frank J. Quintero, spokesman for Burkle's Yucaipa Companies, described as "preposterous" any linkage between planning the fund and the endorsement. "Ron and Magic have been friends for a dozen years and have supported the same candidates," Quintero said.
Johnson's support for Hillary has been apparently unaffected by a separate development involving Bill Clinton and Burkle. In late September, well after Magic Johnson's Hillary endorsement and fundraiser, the relationship between Burkle and Bill Clinton was reportedly severely strained by a September 26 Wall Street Journal article detailing some of controversial dealings by Burkle's company, Yucaipa.
The WSJ story reported that a young Italian businessman had convinced Burkle and a Clinton aide to invest millions of dollars in a controversial and poorly-run venture buying up urban properties owned by the Catholic Church. Clinton, allegedly furious at Burkle, began the process of withdrawing from Yucaipa.