PROVIDENCE: Jeffrey Osborne doesn’t mince words when he describes the importance of having old friend Earvin “Magic” Johnson involved in his Celebrity Classic softball game and golf tournament every August.
“It’s amazing to me,” Osborne said while making a stop in Providence on Tuesday to publicize this year’s event. “Having Magic come out here every year is a big plus for me. That and Rhode Island. Amazingly enough, a lot of my friends had never been here and they love to come back.”
Osborne’s pals, headed by Johnson and repeat attendees Julius Erving, “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Smokey Robinson and members of New Edition, will gather for a softball game at McCoy Stadium on August 8.
Proceeds from the game and a golf tournament the next day at the Carnegie Abbey Club in Portsmouth support initiatives to support music and the arts in public schools and also help local charities such as Amos House and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Providence.
In the first four years of the event, more than $600,000 has been distributed to six nonprofits identified as meeting the Jeffrey Osborne Foundation’s mission.
“We keep it to six charities so each can see a significant amount of money that can make a difference,” Osborne said.
Osborne is the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter whose family hails from Providence’s Camp Street neighborhood. He and older brother Billy were part of the band LTD in the 1970s and just happened to be a personal favorite of a schoolboy basketball star from Lansing, Mich., named Earvin Johnson. After Johnson led Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA championship, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. Through a friend, he asked if LTD could play at his 20th birthday party in Lansing.
“It was just before his rookie year with the Lakers and we went out to Lansing and played his birthday party. We’ve been friends ever since,” Osborne said.
Johnson and Osborne grew close as Magic orchestrated “Showtime” and tickets to the L.A. Forum became the hottest in town. Osborne sang the national anthem at the old Forum before a Lakers win and Johnson called his friend a good luck charm. Soon enough he became a fixture at the Forum and has now sung the anthem for the last 32 Lakers’ season-openers.
When Osborne decided to start a celebrity charity golf event in 2012, he said he got a call out of the blue from Johnson.
“My nephew, Donald, works with Magic and he mentioned to him I was doing something back in Rhode Island. Magic called and asked, “How can I get involved?’
In August of 2012, Osborne contacted the Boys & Girls Club and told it to bus as many kids as it could to Fox Point so they could meet Magic Johnson.
– “They didn’t believe me,” Osborne said with a laugh. “I called [Hall of Fame coach] Pat Riley and he said, ‘If [Magic] is showing up, I’ll be there too.’ So we walked in with Magic and Pat Riley.’’
In 2013, Johnson was supposed to serve only as a coach at a celebrity basketball game at Providence College’s Alumni Hall. After a minute or so of hearing the crowd chant “Magic, Magic, Magic” the basketball legend broke into his trademark smile, started stretching and jogged onto the court for a few minutes of action.
Last year Johnson participated in the celebrity softball game at McCoy Stadium. The game was held on a Monday afternoon and didn’t draw well. This year the game will be played at 7 p.m. and include one of the post-game fireworks shows that the Pawtucket Red Sox have made famous.
“I keep saying, ‘He’s not going to keep doing this,’ but he keeps coming. He’s back with us,” Osborne said. “Magic is big for our live auction [at Carnegie Abbey]. He’s bigger than life and commands everyone’s attention.”
Osborne said he’s thankful that so many of his friends will again join him in Rhode Island. He said similar tournaments “happen every week in L.A.’’ but feels his family and committee members have “created something special here in Rhode Island.”
Osborne, 68, said he was in town for a family reunion but will travel to Hawaii later this week with his jazz band for four shows. He’ll return to his home in California and then be back in Providence for the Celebrity Classic.
“I do see the end coming,” he said, “but I’m waiting to hit the lottery. I still enjoy it but the hardest part is the traveling. The hour and a half, two hours on stage is fun. So getting a chance to be with family and friends in Rhode Island for a few days is a lot of fun.”