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"I had a physical for an insurance policy," he explained. "The results came back Wednesday...."
"This is another challenge...."
"I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus...."
He looked the way he has always looked, vibrant and positive and strong. It was only a couple of weeks ago that he was telling us about his trip to Paris with the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic in Paris. Wasn't that a perfect match? There was a picture of him in front of the Eiffel Tower. A couple of weeks before that, he was on that television show, being announced as a member of the first all-star, all-world U.S.A. Olympic basketball team. Weren't we all laughing at the audaciousness of this powerful conglomeration, the best basketball team ever put together? Magic-was wearing a tuxedo. A couple of weeks before that he had married his college sweetheart. Another tuxedo.
The thought that this disease—that any disease, in fact—could touch this 32-year-old man was flat-out ludicrous. How could this be? He had always been blessed, always a character of ultimate good fortune. Not only did his outsized body do things that most normal-sized bodies cannot do, but he also had an upbeat style and a zip-a-dee-doo-dah bounce to him that were rare. A bluebird seemed to sit on his shoulder every single day. He was a pleasure, a treat, more than a basketball player. A happy, positive spirit. If he could be vulnerable, then what about us?
"Magic." we said, "tell us that this is a mistake. Something must have happened to the blood samples in the lab. Some secretary must have typed a wrong name on a form. Something. Maybe there's another Earvin Johnson. Maybe he's the one."
"Magic," we said, "have a seat. There must be something these doctors can do. You don't have to retire. The doctors will give you something, and you will be all right. You will be back out there, going against Larry Bird, the two of you, back and forth. Larry had that bad back and now seems to be O.K. So the doctors will do something for you, too. Don't say you'll never play again. Don't."
The whir of all of these jumbled thoughts did not disappear when he took his leave, promising to be back, promising to talk some more, promising to try to beat this affliction. Our dinners sat and became cold as we discussed subjects we had never really discussed. We called friends. We talked about the dignity of the man, about how he confronted his situation without shame or evasion. We talked about his life in the past and his life as it now must be. Our televisions and radios were tuned to the news. Our newspapers were soon filled with commentaries and quotes from famous people, and stories about larger implications and possible changes.
The President expressed his sympathy from Rome. There were moments of emotion in various NBA arenas. Hot-line phones began to ring and ring at various AIDS clinics. Donations began to arrive. Schoolchildren were interviewed, asked how they felt. AIDS victims were interviewed, asked how they felt. There was a maudlin side to a lot of the stories that were done—the television newsmen talking in past tense, almost as if the man were dead; the highlight films playing to a background of symphony strings. But that was the feeling: Everything was intense, personal. The tight lips and faraway eyes of Bird and of Isiah Thomas and of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the tight lips and faraway eyes of everyone.
"Who could have touched people the way Magic Johnson has touched people?" we asked each other. "Who could have contracted this virus and shocked us more? Name an actor. Name a singer. Name a politician or a religious leader. Name another athlete. Who has stepped from that television screen and into our lives any more than Magic has? Who has been a bigger friend? Who else has been family?"