There will never be a sadder story than this, and if there is, I want no part of it. Like most Americans, I began to shiver Thursday just after 6 p.m., when Earvin Johnson stepped to a microphone in Los Angeles. I am shivering even as I write this. The world, it seems, has become a terribly cold place.
“Because of the HIV virus I have contracted,” Johnson said, “I will have to retire from the Lakers today.” In a medical sense, it was a blip on the screen, just one more victim of a tragic disease. And yet in the real world, where most of us live, it was a cymbal crash between the ears, the true end of innocence. I don’t know what we were all thinking up to this point, but I know this morning it is not the same.
“I want to make it clear I do not have the AIDS disease,” Johnson said. “A part of my life is gone now, but I’ll go on. . . .”
What was this? Magic Johnson? America’s hero? Mr. Only Good Things Happen? And suddenly, flanked by his friends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper, his bosses, Jerry Buss and Jerry West, his NBA commissioner, David Stern, and his doctor, he was saying good-bye to the sport he revolutionized and hello to a life as a victim, patient, man with a sword over his head?
Across the nation, every living room and every gymnasium and every corner bar, the reaction was the same, so unified you could spell it out across the American sky: “This can’t be true.” He’ll become a spokesman
And yet it is true. It has been true for many others besides Johnson. That The Day Magic Retired will now and forever be connected with The Day America Began To Take AIDS Seriously may not reflect well on our priorities, but it is the truth. No one will ever look at this disease quite so nonchalantly again. No one should have in the first place.
“I will become a spokesman for the disease,” Magic said, as a million flashbulbs exploded in his eyes. “Sometimes you’re a little naive about things; you always think it will never happen to you. But it has happened to me, Magic Johnson. That’s what I’m going to preach from now on.”
He flashed a look at his new wife, Cookie. They had been married this summer after a long courtship. “She’s all right; she tested negative, that’s the good part,” Johnson said. And yet they both knew there is no good part.
This virus knows no kindness. Magic, in all likelihood, can never father children. His marriage and his family life now exist under a stopwatch. While there are no certainties to life as an HIV-positive, in most cases, eventually, the virus leads to AIDS, the immune system is eaten away and eventually your body can no longer defend itself.
This is where we are in the year 1991: The way we love can now come back to kill us.
‘If it happened to him . . .’
No doubt this morning, people who know Earvin or love him or just plain admire him are looking for an answer to life’s most awful question: Why.
There is no why. Those who believe in fate might say he was chosen, in some horribly fatalistic way, to beam the floodlight on this disease, which, if allowed to run rampant, could kill us all. Already, kids on sandlot courts and teens in high school gymnasiums are saying: “Magic? If it happened to him, I’d better really be careful.”
But this can be no comfort to his family, his friends, those who loved him as a man without portfolio, the regular Earvin. They desire no spokesman, they want no martyr. They only want their man back healthy and doing what he does best, playing basketball. And that will not happen.
Back at the press conference, Johnson spoke of his career.
“I’ll miss the battles and the wars,” he said.
And yet does basketball even matter at this point? Newscasters and newspapers quickly assembled the basic tribute package, the way they do for any famous person who retires or passes on, and so we heard how Magic won five NBA championships, and how no one ever played point guard the way he did. We heard how he and Larry Bird basically took the sagging game of professional basketball and breathed life into its form, tickled it, dazzled it, pressed it in brilliant colors, until a worldwide audience had no choice but to turn its way and begin to watch. And to smile. Magic always made them smile.
But in truth, 6 p.m. Thursday had little to do with basketball. What pierced our hearts was simply this: Magic Johnson could die before his time. We could lose that kindness, that face, that cult of personality. It is not completely unfair to compare this with the day John Kennedy was shot, because in 1963, Kennedy represented the way we liked to feel about ourselves, and in 1991, Magic Johnson, with his style and poise and well-managed success, did much the same. He was a president of popular culture. And it should be said that for all his moments, his championship clinches, his laughing interviews, his enormous charity work, never did he stand taller than he did on that podium Thursday evening.
Somehow, he found the courage to smile, even to soothe, as if he had scared his children and wanted to put them at ease.
“I am not afraid. It’s another challenge. When your back is against the wall you have to come out swinging, and I’m swinging. . . .
“I appreciate all of you. I’m gonna go now. I am gonna go on, I’m gonna beat it, I’m gonna have fun.
“OK, I’ll see you soon.”
With that, he ducked behind a curtain, and a nation let out a collective gasp. What we have now lost can only be matched by what we can no longer deny: That this is not a disease for other people, for the weird, the perverse, the drug-addicted, people who somehow deserve it. We are shivering. We are confused. We know only this: If this disease can find its way to poison someone as fine as Earvin Johnson, we had all better run for cover.