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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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Our first thought was, We're going to watch him die. He will wither away in the most public fashion because Earvin Johnson, called Magic, can't do it any other way. He will visit with Arsenio and Jay, he'll go on Nightline from time to time, and he'll no doubt be a halftime guest at the NBA Finals. On each occasion he'll look a little weaker, a little more captive to a disease that defies understanding, and we'll turn away and shake our heads.

November 7, 1991, was one of those seismic Where-were-you-when-you-heard? moments in American culture. Even if you didn't follow pro sports, you knew Magic—whose last name, like Michael's and Larry's, was superfluous—was part of me holy triumvirate that had saved pro basketball. There he was, telling us, with the imprecise language that was part of his charm, that he had "attained" the AIDS virus, as if it were another goal he'd reached in a storied career: five championship rings, three MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, one deadly disease. From what information he gave us in succeeding days, it was in fact a form of attainment, the consequence of sexual encounters—heterosexual encounters, Magic emphasized as rumors about his sexual orientation swirled—in offices, in elevators, with multiple partners, the profane fruit of the Penthouse Forum fantasy life available to superstars.

Many thought that Magic was lying about his sexual preference and that he had gotten what all of those blasphemous sodomites deserved. Many were trying to get their minds around the cold reality that heterosexuals could contract a "gay disease" that had emerged, sinister and deadly, only 10 years earlier. Many of all sexual persuasions began using prophylactics, or as Magic put it (in that overly precious way that made us cringe), to "put your thinking caps on, and put your cap on down there." Still, whether you were shaking your head at Magic's indiscretions or weeping at the man's misfortune, you couldn't deny the cruel irony of the revelation: that when a well-known athlete contracted this horrible virus, it turned out to be one of the best, and best-loved, athletes on earth.

Ten years. Michael has retired, unretired, retired and perhaps unretired again. Larry is just gone. The Lakers have fallen and risen. And Magic is still here. Millions of young people have never lived in a culture without AIDS. Almost all of us know someone who has died of the disease, but almost all of us know someone who is living with it, too. Ten years. We know everything about AIDS. We know nothing.

Seeing Magic intensifies our confusion. He looks so hale and hearty that maybe it's true what we've heard, that he has somehow swerved around the disease as if it were a backpedaling defender on a fast break. Or does he look bloated? Too big? Is some bizarre steroid treatment part of his daily medicinal regimen? Will the disease reappear one day, in the manner of an intruder jumping out from a dark corner, and ravage him? Or will he be Magic for the next 50 years (box, page 78)?

We don't know all the answers. We may not know most of them. This much we do know: Earvin (Magic) Johnson—who owns movie theaters and shopping plazas; who brainstorms in boardrooms with some of America's leading executives; who has helped transform the concept of inner-city business; who recently got his own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, near those of Chuck Norris and Liza Minnelli; who owns 5% of the NBA's championship franchise; who works out each day with the zeal of a young man trying to make an Olympic team; who has a loving wife and three children; who approaches life with an indefatigability that defies description—has not withered away. He is, in fact, the most public representative of a new subgroup in American society: "long-term nonprogressors," who are surviving with HIV and, in some cases, thriving.

Ed O' Bannon, the gangly, mad-hopping forward who led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA title, remembers where he was when he heard the news. "Somebody came into the training room and said Magic was retiring because he had AIDS," says O'Bannon, shaking his head as he takes a break from a noontime pickup game in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. "I didn't believe it. When I watched the press conference later that day, it broke my heart. It was one of the lowest moments of my life because he was my favorite player of all time. We all thought he was going to die." O'Bannon smiles and points to the action on the court. "Now look at him."

Magic, who turned 42 on Aug. 14, is the oldest player on the court by 15 years. He runs with a gimpy, stiff-kneed stride, no longer employing what he used to call "that old hippety-hop," a gear-changing gait that masked average quickness. However, the old man wearing a long-sleeved gold jersey and long shorts—the boys had just joshed him about the Lakers short shorts they had seen on him in an ESPN Classic clip—is still unmistakably Magic. Yes, at times he looks a bit slow, but there are as many times when he's the center of the action, when his size and his spin move enable him to get to the basket almost at will. (A month after this pickup game Magic will make his once-a-summer appearance in a Los Angeles Summer Pro League game and walk away smiling after a 20-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple double.)

Magic picks the teams, mandates the parameters of the game, initiates the action with a "Let's get it on, let's roll." He keeps up a constant barrage of chatter (That's your spot! Trailer comin'! Go to work now!), while acting as scorekeeper and referee. Most decisions are favorable to his team. "What, we're going to go against him?" says O'Bannon. "That's one of the five greatest players ever out there." Magic weaves down the court like a canny old boxer weaves around the ring, head bobbing, eyes wide open, seeing all points on the hardcourt compass. He stops, sets up, backs his man down and releases a hook shot that drops through the net. "Vintage," says former UCLA star Toby Bailey. "That s—- is vintage."

It is hot in the gym, and the players are sweating bullets. One remembers a time when Magic's perspiration was an international issue, every droplet a viral mystery or, worse, a viral time bomb. Members of Australia's basketball team, worried about the health implications of rubbing against someone with the AIDS virus, threatened to boycott if Magic played in the 1992 Olympics. (He played, and so did the Aussies.) Several NBA players expressed fears about contracting the disease through an exchange of sweat. The tabloids played into the fears of a nation that only six years earlier had pondered whether Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac who had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, should be permitted to attend public school, and a year after that had heard William F. Buckley Jr. propose that AIDS sufferers be tattooed for identification purposes.

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