Back to Reality
One of the best things about his Olympic experience, said Magic Johnson in Barcelona, was getting to know his fellow Dream Teamers off the court. " Karl Malone for one," said Magic. "We've never been real close, and we spent a lot of time talking."
Malone, an All-Star forward for the Utah Jazz, talked about something else last week—the fears many NBA players had about Magic's decision to return to the league even though he was HIV-positive.
"Just because he came back doesn't mean nothing to me," Malone told Harvey Araton of The New York Times before the Jazz took on the New York Knicks in an Oct. 27 preseason game. "I'm no fan, no cheerleader. It may be good for basketball, but you have to look far beyond that. You have a lot of young men who have a long life ahead of them. The Dream Team was a concept everybody loved. But now we're back to reality."
That is what finally struck Magic squarely in the face. On Monday morning in Los Angeles—five days short of a year since he had delivered the shocking news that he was carrying the AIDS virus and would be retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers, and 34 days since he had said he would return to the Lakers after all—Johnson announced that he would not play this season. He had become increasingly aware that a lot of people in the league were not behind his decision to return. And he was bothered by the specter of players shying away from contact with him and by the possibility that that could affect the outcome of games. Indeed, he had sensed that some of his opponents might not go all out against him during the season. Further, he could not bear the thought that some of the NBA's other stars, like Malone, were among those who didn't want him back. Magic reveled in his relationships with the sport's elite and in the fact that he was the leader of leaders, the Magic Man, co-captain of the Dream Team.
His disappointment must be profound. He not only defined himself first and foremost as a player, but he also felt that he could best carry on the fight against AIDS from the very public forum of NBA arenas. In truth Magic never had as much support among players as he thought he did. Even several members of the Dream learn said things about him behind his back that they would not say to his face. The remarks were not personal insults, but these players did question whether he had the right to jeopardize the health of other players.
The health issue was crystallized for Magic last Friday evening, when his arm was scratched during a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Chapel Hill, N.C. A source close to Johnson says he was unnerved by the sight of photographers scrambling to take a picture of his being ministered to by Laker trainer Gary Vitti. A subsequent wire-service picture of Vitti treating him sent tremors of fear through the league.
The NBA's experts on AIDS have repeatedly put the chances of contracting the disease through an exchange of blood during competition at "infinitesimal" or "next to zero." Some players trusted the league's advisers and went on. Others had doubts but kept quiet. Others, like Malone, had doubts and went public.
Magic's decision (which we must presume to be final) means that he and Larry Bird, who announced his retirement on Aug. 18, will go out together, just as they came into the NBA together, in 1979. Johnson can take comfort in the fact that his stellar performances at the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and in Barcelona proved, as he said on Monday, "that a person with HIV can continue to lead an active, productive life." Nonetheless, there will always be the reality that Magic, the most popular of players, left the game because some people didn't want him around.
End of a Marathon Wait