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True Lies
Gary Smith
February 12, 1996
All along, Magic Johnson insisted he wasn't coming back. Was he kidding us, his family—or himself?
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February 12, 1996

True Lies

All along, Magic Johnson insisted he wasn't coming back. Was he kidding us, his family—or himself?

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When the sunlight and the angle are right, you can see your face on the screen of your computer. Staring back at you through the words of the story you've already half written on the retirement of Earvin (Magic) Johnson. How could this have happened to you?

You believed him. You, who stood there in an abandoned boxing ring on a Texas ranch a dozen years ago, listening to a fat, happy minister named George Foreman swear to you he could never close his hands into fists and strike a man again.

You, who wrote about the whiplash Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard felt each time they tried to walk away from a game at which they were geniuses. You, with white already in your whiskers, sitting there just two weeks before word leaked of Magic's return to the Los Angeles Lakers, nodding and scribbling down every word as he told you the exact moment he knew he would never again play in the NBA.

His eyes were wide with the telling of his story, and all its sweetness shone upon his face. It was the night last summer, he said, when he opened Magic Theatres, a state-of-the-art 12-screen cineplex in South Central Los Angeles, just a few miles from where the Rodney King riots had erupted, and everyone from the neighborhood—the grandmas and gangbangers, the housewives and housepainters, the businessmen and busboys—came at him with hugs and with tears, thanking him for erecting this glorious house of fantasy so near the rubble and the ruins.

"I came out of there that night covered with lipstick," Earvin was saying. "People telling me, 'I've been in this community for 40 years, and nothing ever happened like this.' Wives crying, thanking me for creating jobs, for changing their husbands' lives. Me crying, too, the happiest day of my life. I felt God was taking me and saying. This is what I want you to do.' It was a different love than I got on the court. It wasn't attached to winning. This love's forever. It hit me right then: This is it. I'm not ever going back to the NBA."

So now you're leafing through a pile of notepads, retracing your route, noticing all the little right and left turns you might have taken. Reminding yourself that this story wasn't like all the other ones of athletes who had retired in their prime. That death hung over this one. Odd, how vaporlike death is in this story: there one moment, like the morning mists of Los Angeles in winter, and gone the next. Magic Johnson could do that to death. Make it evaporate, like the sun.

Where is the horror? you kept wondering on your way to visit him. Where is the dread? There was never a trace of them in all the photographs, the videotape, the quotes. All you kept seeing was sunshine, the world's most wondrous smile, and all you kept reading was "I'm not scared of death. I'm not worried. Everyone else cried for me. I've never cried over HIV. I'm going to beat it." And all you kept hearing about was not the gradual diminishing of a life readying itself for its conclusion, but about extension, enlargement, expansion. The 30 pounds of muscle he had added to his chest and upper arms since the day the infection was discovered. The daughter, Elisa, he and his wife, Cookie, adopted a year ago. His theater complex, which astonished the film industry by regularly ranking among the 10 top-grossing movie houses in America. The plans to build more theaters, in largely black communities in Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, New York City and Washington, splitting the investment 50-50 with Sony. The mall he was helping to finance in Las Vegas. The new line of athletic shoes he was unveiling. The 5% ownership he had purchased of a Lakers franchise worth roughly $200 million. The Magic Johnson All-Stars he was taking around the world for exhibition games against national basketball teams, drawing standing-room-only crowds, amassing a 55-0 record and netting more money per game for Earvin—as much as $365,000 when corporate sponsorship fees for local appearances were included—than any NBA millionaire earns. The sports-apparel company he was running, the corporate speeches he was giving at as much as 100 grand a pop, the AIDS foundation he had established, which raised $6 million. Profits up, bench press up, helper T-cell count up. Death?

And so, four years and three months past the day when a lab technician spotted the telltale marker—the thin black antigen bands confirming that HIV had entered Magic Johnson's bloodstream—you went looking for the other indicators of a man marked to die. For the eye flicker and the dry mouth and the shadows between words, for the soul grottoes which cameramen and microphone holders frequently miss. For the soot and cinders of a blazing self-deception.

What you found was a man running his life as if it were the Lakers' fast break. Up at 6:30, scouring the sports and business sections with a giant cup of herbal tea and a breakfast of grains and fruits. Working the phones, calling Magic Theatres to learn the previous day's take, buzzing Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to evaluate personnel and blow off steam about another ho-hum team performance. Leaving his Beverly Hills mansion in his limousine to pump iron at the Sports Club/L.A., then going directly to the club's basketball court and shooting 10 times from each of 15 different spots on the floor, matching shot for shot with a friend named Marchell Henry, always barking the names of Henry's former girlfriends whenever the poor fellow was about to launch a shot that could swing the outcome, always insisting that the loser (guess who?) place an imaginary title belt around the waist of the winner (how did you know?) while he crowed, "And still heavyweight champion of the WORRRRRRRLD!!!" Then back into the limo. where Earvin, forever the point guard, directs his driver into swifter-moving lanes as he skims the sheaf of documents on his lap and sizzles the cellular phone, heading for another meeting with one of L.A.'s power brokers and then on to a two-hour practice with his touring team. Then home to tease Cookie for a few minutes, to grab a bite and a nap and a little time with three-year-old Earvin III and 14-month-old Elisa, and then back into the car to catch the Lakers' game at the Forum, where he sits in the front row a few feet from the bench, smiling and squirming and standing to flash hand signals to players—Slow it down, little fella or Take him low, big man or How in God's name did you miss the cutter on the right baseline, fool?—and the players look to him and nod in midaction.

You listened to Denise Villanueva, executive director of the Magic Johnson Foundation, which raises funds for the fight against AIDS, saying, "I can't imagine how he could've gone through this and not changed, but he hasn't. It's like he had this little bump in the road, went over it and just kept going. Everything he does keeps being so successful that it just keeps that adrenaline going." A little bump? But his friends, his wife, his mother all agree: They have never seen him, even for a few minutes on a gray Monday morning, in sadness or anger over his infection. "Like nothing ever happened," said his father, Earvin Sr., shaking his head.

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