Walter Payton is dead. Payne Stewart is dead. Wilt Chamberlain is dead. Joe DiMaggio is dead.
And Magic Johnson is alive.
He's happier. He's richer. He's stronger than he was on that unforgettable day, eight years ago this week, when he retired because he was HIV positive.
He can bench 325 pounds. Weighing 245, he's about 20 pounds heavier than he was in his prime, but now he's ripped. Muscle & Fitness asked him to be on the cover. He's ordered all new suits. He just had a triple-double in a Swedish league appearance, despite being at least 10 years older than any other man on the court. He says that his T-cell count is through the sunroof and that there are "no viral accumulations" in his bloodstream.
"I guess people thought I'd be dead by now," Magic says, "but I'm still here—and I'm still going to be here. I don't think about dying. I just live."
Nobody else I know squeezes more out of one day of life than Magic. What he did with his life in basketball—a state high school title, an NCAA title, five NBA titles—is crumb cake compared to what he's doing with it now. Magic is a better man now, a bigger hero, a greater agent of good.
He's one of the most influential black businessmen in America. He owns five Starbucks and has plans to open 10 more—nearly all of them in black neighborhoods, including one in Crenshaw and one in Harlem. He's got four Magic Johnson Theaters in inner-city neighborhoods. He owns a TV and film production company, a talent-management company (Vivica A. Fox, Steve Harvey, Mase are clients) and a record label. He's part owner of four shopping centers, a restaurant and Founders Bank. He's got a foundation that since 1991 has given away $15 million, primarily to community-based organizations dealing with HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs. He's making truck-loads of money in neighborhoods in which white businessmen are scared to pull to a stop, much less invest.
He hires black contractors to build businesses that he staffs with black employees, many of whom are working for the first time. When he built one multiplex, in Crenshaw, he hired 12 gang-bangers to be part of the construction crew, and six of them stayed on in full-time jobs. He has gone into areas where there were mostly pawnshops and liquor stores, and put up gleaming palaces that have stayed as clean as they were the day they opened.
He's a player in politics. Bill Clinton has strolled Watts with him. Gore and Bush have met with him. Bill Bradley calls. Yeah, when you're a black businessman with a net worth of more than $200 million and you can move huge blocs of votes with one well-placed quote, your answering machine tends to fill up.
At the end of last season a reporter asked Charles Barkley why more multimillionaire athletes don't give back to their roots. Last month Barkley responded by writing out $1 million checks to his college, his high school and an elementary school. But why are he and Magic exceptions?