It's not only the gay community that has a short memory. While the news about Magic hit the NBA like a cyclone in 1991, it doesn't seem so fresh now, and at least one Western Conference forward, who wishes to remain anonymous, believes NBA players still engage in risky sexual behavior. "Guys are, like, It ain't gonna happen to me and Even if I get it, look at Magic." The NBA has made HIV prevention a major part of its education program, but even Stern concedes that education has its limits. "We have 18-year-old kids coming into the league wanting to know, 'Hey, this Magic Johnson guy? Did he ever play?' "
In this environment what is Magic's responsibility as an HIV-positive public figure? "I feel uncomfortable saying this, speaking about someone I don't know personally, but there's so much more he could be doing," says Meyer.
A thousand times over the last 10 years HIV-positive people, most of them gay males have stopped Magic—in airports, on the street, in fitness centers—and he says he always gives them time unless he's rushing to make a flight. He will not define himself, though, as the Former Basketball Player Who Has HIV. The Magic Johnson Foundation continues to be involved in HIV and AIDS causes, but it works as hard at sending underprivileged minorities to college. Some of his Starbucks have brochures about HIV, but it is easier for a customer to find out the price of a double latte than a statistic about AIDS. In 1992 Magic became a member of George Bush's National Commission on AIDS but resigned eight months later because he said that Administration wasn't doing enough to fight the disease. Since then, he has not signed on as a member of any major national AIDS or HIV organization.
Does he do enough? Who is qualified to add up that score? To turn Magic into purely, or even mainly, an HIV symbol seems limiting. Through dint of personality and achievement he has achieved that rare status of embraceable celebrity. There he is chatting up a white grandmother in Starbucks who tells him, "I've always thought you were such a nice young man." There he is slapping palms with a young black man outside Pauley Pavilion and saying, "Whassup, boy? Where are all da fellas?" There he is crashing a table at TGI Friday's and tickling the chin of a youngster who was thrust into his arms. "Hey, little man. You gonna be a basketball fan?" There he is joshing with an acquaintance who claimed, nicely but adamantly, that Magic had cheated in a bid whist game at actor-director Robert Townsend's house a few weeks earlier. "Oh, man, don't even try that. Three hours in a row I put it on you guys."
He talks business, he talks trash. He talks computer printouts, he talks jive. Traveling with Magic, an inveterate master of ceremonies, is like being at a mobile ceremonial coin toss: "Leroy, this is Robert. Robert, this is Amanda. Amanda's the best waitress I got. Amanda, this is Richard. Richard's the best real estate salesman in L.A. Richard, this is...." Who else has Magic's gift for connecting? Charles Barkley is, like Magic, an all-world mingler, but he's not as famous. Jordan is more famous, but he's not as comfortable in a crowd. Same goes for most movie stars and most politicians.
In private moments, when he takes the time to ponder his eventful journey, Magic will admit to feeling sad about having the virus, sad, too, that the circumstances by which he got it will be a part of his legacy. Those moments do not last long, though. "I look three to five years ahead," he says, "not 10 years behind."
He and Cookie believe he was chosen to get the disease "because God needed someone, and He picked me." That is a presumptuous notion, but when you consider what Magic has created with his businesses, the energy he puts into each day and how many people he touches, you at least begin to wonder. Magic, like thousands of others, was a dead man walking, and now he is very much alive. That is a blessing and something close to a miracle.