Grateful and Blessed: Meet Larry D. Johnson Sr.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s oldest brother says he went “from dope fiend to deacon,” thanks to recovery
This Q&A, facilitated by Jeremiah Gardner of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, was originally published for Hazelden Betty Ford’s monthly Recovery Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive our advocacy emails, subscribe today.
Q: What does recovery look like for you, and how has it empowered different aspects of your life?
When I continue to look back on my life, where I came from, and where I am today, I know I owe it all to recovery.
Because of recovery, I’m able to live today, truly live. I’m financially secure. I’m available to my family members. I’m respected in my community. And the biggest blessing of all is I’m able to reach out my hand and help others.
For so many years, I allowed the devil to run me ragged. The streets swallowed me up, just like the whale swallowed Jonah in the Bible. But my higher power rescued me, and today I wake up every morning and say thank you for another day — another day to live and share a message of hope and recovery.
For me, recovery is rooted in both faith — I am a deacon at Bethel Community Seventh Day Adventist Church — and in my Twelve Step program. I need both.
Q: What does it mean for you to share your recovery with others?
It means the world to me. They called me Dope Fiend Larry and now they call me Mr. Johnson. I went from dope fiend to deacon. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine becoming a person that others could believe in, look up to, or rely upon. At one time I wanted to commit suicide, I overdosed twice and was left for dead. I totaled out three cars. God saved me for this work. He wanted me to help others know there is hope. I’m just grateful. I asked in the beginning: Why me? And God told me: Why not you? All these years later, I’m grateful to be able to help others and ask them: Why not you?
Q: What inspired you to launch Brotherhood Against Drugs?
When I got out of jail in 1991 after a long time behind bars, I met a friend, Jimmy Battle, and we wanted to start something. We’d looked at advocacy work that others were doing and were inspired, I guess. Jimmy actually came up with the name. It stuck, and we launched it in 1992.
We are a grassroots group that is committed to giving back to the community. Our mission is to help others find and sustain recovery, a job, and a place to live, and even get their children back. We also do work with homeless community members and share our stories with kids in schools, patients in treatment centers, folks in jail and others. We take kids to sporting events. Next year, we’ll be taking kids to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. We want kids to know hope and love, no matter who they are and what they have or don’t have. We try to provide a little direction, too.
We also spoke recently to Mothers Against Gun Violence. When we see something in our community that causes hurt, we need to say something about it.
In the end, we want to be a light in our community.
This year, we’ll be celebrating 30 years with a community picnic in Lansing on Aug. 21. Hard to believe it’s been that long. It sure is gratifying.
Q: What challenges and rewards have you experienced in your personal recovery journey as a result of your work?
When I was locked up, my son, Larry Johnson Jr., was 6 or 7 at the time. I remember calling him collect once, and he said he had to go because his other daddy was there. When I got off the phone, I was so upset and hurt that I asked the guard to lock me down in my room. I knew how easy it would be for me to react to something and get into a fight. While I was locked down, I prayed. And when I got into recovery and out of county jail, my uncle convinced my son’s mother to let him come stay with me.
I was able to become the father I wanted to be and wanted him to see. I watched him graduate, and we became best friends. Today, we have the absolute best relationship.
My dad is another one. When I was younger, we couldn’t stay in same room for 30 seconds without going at each other. But when he had a stroke in 1999, he called me on my cell and I was able to rush and get him to the hospital. And when he developed dementia five years ago, I moved back home to Lansing so I could help take care of him.
Today, my wife Jennifer and I are also able to help raise my 11-year-old grandson, Keston Clayton, who lives with us.
If not for God and my recovery, I wouldn’t be able to have these relationships. And taking care of those relationships is what helps me take care of me too.
There have been challenges, yes. But the rewards are so much greater.
Q: What would you like more people to understand about addiction and/or recovery?
One thing I want adults to know is that the images and messages they put out into the world make a difference in the lives of kids. I see too many adults, including entertainers, sending the message to kids that it’s OK to smoke weed and drink — making it look cool instead of setting better examples and educating kids about risks. Sure, many people can drink socially, but that can’t be the only thing kids learn about substances. Too many young people are caught up in alcohol and drugs, and now, with fentanyl so prevalent, the risks are greater than ever.
We also need to make clear to everyone that there is always hope, that recovery is possible. And we need to build more programs to help those who don’t have financial resources but are willing and eager to get help.
As a society, we also need to place a high value on second chances. We’re all humans, and everyone deserves another chance. Too often, if a person gets caught drinking or using, they get fired on the spot. There’s no tolerance. But there should be. If we work with people, and get them help, good things happen. We see successes all the time.
We also need to do more to help people understand that addiction hurts entire families. My mom didn’t even come to jail the last time I was arrested. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired, but so was she. We can’t gloss over the hurt that addiction can cause, and need to make sure we help families heal, too.
Q: What is it like being able to participate as a healthy, very productive person in things like your brother Earvin’s documentary?
It means the world to me because Earvin is one who never gave up on me.
I would write letters to him from county jail and ask him to give me OK signs during interviews on TV to let me know he got the letters. Sure enough, while he was winning basketball games with the Lakers and I was sitting in jail, he would do the little OK signs on TV. That made me feel so good.
He was living out my dream — and I was living out the consequences of abandoning my dream. I was a pretty good young player too, and taught Earvin how to make no-look passes. When I made the freshman team, though, I got talked to about playing too fancy. I said forget it and walked off the team. They said I could come back, but I was so angry, I never did. I allowed that conversation to steal my dream. Instead of taking that and motivating myself, I was teed off and decided to make a name selling drugs and fighting. Earvin was just a couple years behind me in school, and seeing his huge success hurt more because I was thinking it could have been me. So, I used drugs and alcohol to medicate my pain.
Through all that I went through, Earvin never gave up on me. I worked at General Motors, like my dad did, off and on for years. I was a shop rat, putting on mirrors, windshields, door handles, you name it. Doing inspections. After I retired from GM, Earvin hired me to come out to Los Angeles and do sales for one of his businesses, a food service company called Sodexo Magic. I worked there for 10 years before coming back to Lansing to help take care of our parents.
Earvin taught me how to be a family man and take your time and make it work for everybody. This man here — we would be on the road for several days, on his plane — and then we’d get back and he’d tell me to take a day off, but he’d go into work himself. He cherished his business but knew how to take care of home and his family members too — whether that was me, his wife Cookie or others.
I went with Earvin once to a college basketball game on a Navy ship, and President Obama was there. I’ll never forget Earvin taking me to meet the President. He was so recognized and respected, the Secret Service let him walk right up the President, and we carried on a conversation like we had been friends for life.
Wow — who ever thought a kid from Lansing who was addicted to drugs would ever end up in a conversation with Magic Johnson and President Obama? Earvin saw in me things I couldn’t see in myself. He has been a great inspiration for me. I tip my hat to my brother. He loves me and my family, and he’s just a great individual who gives everyone a chance.
I’m close with every last one of my siblings now. We lost one sister so there’s nine of us — five sisters and four brothers. I’m the one who needs to get things done for the family now. I love being able to play the role of oldest. So, being able to be healthy and contribute to things like Earvin’s documentary, to maintain great relationships, and heal others — I’m grateful every day.