Former NBA star views telepresence as magic

NBA legend Magic Johnson says the technology saves his off-the-court business millions

Former pro basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson recently gave a ringing testimonial on the value of high-definition videoconferencing technology to his business and charitable work.

Speaking from Los Angeles on Friday in a live videoconferencing session sponsored by Cisco Systems, Johnson, 49, talked with reporters in New York, Boston and San Jose and said that he has used Cisco's high-end telepresence videoconferencing technology in hundreds of meetings during the past eight months.

Over the coming years, Johnson predicted, telepresence systems will save his various Magic Johnson Enterprises business ventures millions of dollars and millions of worker hours. He said he will calculate the annual savings when he has used the Cisco technologies for a full year.

"I can't measure [the value] now, but yes it has saved us a lot of money, a lot of plane flights and a lot of hotels, and on and on," he said. "I'm very happy and I'm seeing it and feeling it."

The biggest value might be the ways that telepresence and related technologies have improved working conditions for the 45 employees at his Los Angeles headquarters and the many thousands of people employed at partner ventures in 22 states. "We have very happy employees now," he said. "Never underestimate a happy employee."

Magic Johnson Enterprises is focused on a wide array of urban development initiatives, including sports centers, coffee shops and restaurants that Johnson said were hard to find in inner-city neighborhoods until his organization formed partnerships and urged companies to open businesses there. Sales per customer are higher at Starbucks stores where his organization is involved than at an average Starbucks, Johnson said. He also said his organization controls $1 billion in cash that can be used in various investments.

Cisco said the telepresence systems that Magic Johnson Enterprises uses were provided as part of the company's philanthropic outreach programs, but officials would not place a value on the gear.

After eights months of using telepresence systems, Johnson said he has found the technology useful for many types of business meetings and for groups involved with the Magic Johnson Foundation. But he has ruled out using the technology to meet a potential partner for the first time, saying he prefers the initial meeting to be in person. Also, he said he would not use the technology as a venue for disciplining an employee, even though it is high-definition and offers an intimate environment for communication.

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"Discipline is always face to face," and should be conducted through middle managers speaking in person with the employee. But Johnson said he might use videoconferencing for "crisis control," although that hasn't come up.

Johnson also said he can conduct meetings from his home, where he has installed high-definition monitors. For example, he said, on Friday morning at 6 a.m., he held a videoconference with his onetime NBA rival, former Celtics star Larry Bird. The two are co-authors of a book that goes on sale tomorrow. With telepresence, "the wear and tear on my body is better. You don't have to get on as many planes. Things happen faster and quicker."

Johnson won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers before retiring in 1991 after announcing he had HIV. He returned twice afterward, and finished his career playing 32 games in 1996.

The former superstar flashed his famous smile when he was asked questions about basketball by sports reporters participating in the telepresence press conference. He declared Lakers player Kobe Bryant the best player in basketball but put Celtics forward Paul Pierce "right up there." And he said in a game of one-on-one between him and Bird, the former Celtics great would win, because Bird was always a better one-on-one player.