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Life After Death
Jack McCallum
August 20, 2001
Magic Johnson has pulled off one of the great comebacks in sports history, and it's got nothing to do with basketball
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August 20, 2001

Life After Death

Magic Johnson has pulled off one of the great comebacks in sports history, and it's got nothing to do with basketball

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Lombard says the boss thinks nothing of sending back a $15 item on an expense report if he considers the explanation unsatisfactory. "He has eyes everywhere," says Denson. The man lives for details. One of Delgardo's duties is to correct mistakes in Magic's vocabulary, instantly and without fear of rebuke. There shall be no more "attaining" the AIDS virus. "I'm a control freak but in a good way I hope," he says.

Magic can't wait to get to the office each afternoon to start reading printouts. "I know how much popcorn was sold in my movie theaters the night before and how much coffee was sold in my Starbucks," he says. "It's my name and my money. I don't fool around with that."

People who do business with Magic can expect a careful but creative man, one who depends heavily on Lombard and Grant for the major deals but who has become confident in his own abilities as a businessman, just as he was as a player. They are also getting involved with the world's most prominent HIV-positive individual.

Magic was never branded, exiled to a leper colony or bled with leeches. He has a world-class athletic body that helped him fight disease, virtually unlimited personal funds and access to the best medical treatment in the world. Nonetheless, don't think this man didn't suffer.

The worst time was the late summer and early fall of 1992, 10 months after his earth-rattling press conference, after he had helped the U.S. win a gold medal in Barcelona and announced he wanted to return to the NBA. Medical expert after medical expert insisted that the chances of his infecting another player through incidental contact were infinitesimal, but that did not allay the fears. A number of NBA players ( Mark Price, Gerald Wilkins, Scott Skiles among them) voiced strong concerns over Magic's playing. Several athletes from other sports (NFLers Troy Aikman and Steve Atwater, to name two), weighed in with the same opinion. So did one of Magic's Dream Team mates, Karl Malone, whom Magic considered a friend. ( Malone apologized.) Two Lakers, Green and Byron Scott, had questioned Magic's participation in the All-Star Game seven months earlier, as had Houston Rockets coach Don Chaney. The Phoenix Suns' Jerry Colangelo, one of the most powerful owners in the game, said he was concerned that Magic's return would present a health risk to players with million-dollar contracts.

At least one influential journalist, Dave Kindred of Vie Sporting News, demanded that Magic "tell the whole truth about how he acquired the AIDS virus." For weeks the newspapers were filled with stories about how one of Magic's close friends, who turned out to be Isiah Thomas, had spread rumors that Magic was bisexual. Magic lost nearly all his endorsement deals after announcing he was positive. "And that was just what the public knew about," says Lon Rosen, Magic's former agent and a close friend. "What he went through in private—the things people said to him, the letters he got—was horrible."

He had to deal with something else as well: the looks of pity. "We had seen the course of AIDS, and there was the expectation that he was on a certain path to a short-term death," says Stern. A foreign journalist asked Magic during the Olympics, "How does it feel knowing you won't watch your children grow up?" That wasn't considered ignorant overstatement; that was the prevailing belief. You get the virus, you develop AIDS, you die.

On Nov. 2, 1992—34 days after he officially announced he was coming back, two days after a photo of Lakers trainer Gary Vitti tending to a cut on Magic's forearm without using gloves ran in newspapers all over the country, four days before the start of the regular season—Magic packed it in. Uncharacteristically, he didn't even show up at the press conference, enlisting Rosen to read this statement: "It has become obvious that the various controversies surrounding my return are taking away from both basketball as a sport and the larger issue of living with HIV for me and the many people affected." Privately, he told his friends, "It's just no fun."

For Magic, the worst part of any of it—worse than the public criticism; the ostracism, subtle and otherwise, from his peers; the loss of pride; the loss of income—was obvious: no basketball. When he quit, he was less than 18 months removed from a championship series. (Jordan's Chicago Bulls had beaten Magic's Lakers in five games.) He was a year removed from the Lakers' trip to the McDonald's Open in Paris, where the shouts of "Ma-jeek! Ma-jeek!" followed him as he gamboled down the Champs �lys�es. He was not at the top of his game, but he wasn't close to finished, which he was when he made an abbreviated 32-game return in 1995. What did he lose because he was driven out of the sport by fear? A few thousand points? A couple thousand assists? A thousand more jolts of adrenaline from doing the one thing he has loved more than anything else?

Magic doesn't dwell on what he calls "negativity." He is, as Mickey Mellman, Magic's personal doctor, says, "a man who is so optimistic that he doesn't see the glass half full—he doesn't even see the glass." Still, the memory of that dark time will never leave him.

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