But he became a billionaire mainly through his business deals.
According to an article published by Forbes on Monday, Johnson's net worth is estimated at $1.2 billion, making him the fourth athlete recognized by the magazine to have reached billionaire status. He follows fellow retired NBA legend Michael Jordan (who reached billionaire status in 2014), golfer Tiger Woods (2022) and current Lakers star LeBron James (2022).
“To join those three guys — MJ, Tiger, LeBron — who have accomplished a lot and to get here just makes me feel so good," Johnson told The Times in a phone interview Monday afternoon. "I admire them and respect them so much because they keep going. They are growing their brand. They are growing their companies."
He added that another Lakers legend should have made that exclusive list. “You know who would have been the fifth guy as a billionaire? Kobe Bryant," Johnson said of the Lakers legend who died in 2020 at age 41. "He was heading in that direction already."
Johnson, 64, differs from the other three billionaire athletes in that he amassed relatively little of his fortune during his playing days. Although he was the face of the Lakers and one of the NBA's best-known players in the 1980s and into the '90s, Johnson made around $40 million in career earnings and an additional $2 million to $4 million a year in endorsements, according to Forbes.
Jordan, who won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s, earned $94 million in salary and signing bonuses and an estimated $2.4 billion in endorsements during a 15-season career that spanned from 1984 to 2003. Woods and James are still active athletes.
According to Forbes, Johnson has entered the 10-figure club mainly because of his joint business ventures and partnerships. He told The Times that Jordan, who was the majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets from 2010 until selling most of his stake in the team earlier this year, has been an inspiration.
“You need somebody to push you and keep you grinding and working hard and going after your goals and dreams," Johnson told The Times. "So Michael Jordan achieving what he had achieved and being the first one of us athletes to be a billionaire, that just inspired me to keep working hard."
Johnson gives credit to his many mentors and business partners over the years.
“You don’t get there alone," Johnson told The Times. "Michael had his people. I have my people. This is not something that like it’s by myself. All these people who have been around me and who I just mentioned, also my business partners who put me in an incredible position."
One of the first people who took him under his wing in the business world is late Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who sold Johnson a minority stake in the team in 1994 (Johnson later sold his shares to Los Angeles Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong).
“Basically, you owe a lot of that to Dr. Buss," Johnson told The Times. "It was his mentorship. He guided me and he was that father figure that made sure I had all the tools necessary to be successful. When you think about days like this, you wish him and my father [Earvin Johnson Sr.] were still alive to see what I’ve accomplished."
Some of Johnson's other earlier investments included deals with Loews and Starbucks that became quite lucrative as the basketball star helped the companies expand into predominantly Black neighborhoods.
His investments now are wide and varied, but the biggest asset in Johnson's portfolio is his 60% share in EquiTrust Life Insurance, Forbes states. Since Johnson took over as majority owner in 2015, the company’s total assets have risen from $16 billion to $26 billion, with annual revenues at around $2.6 billion.
“You know what I’m really happy about is that I’ve been able to put a lot of Black folks in positions of power and also help them become millionaires," Johnson said. "I’m really happy about that."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.