As the rumor spread, you could feel America shake its head in denial. And as the TVs flickered on, you could feel America bite its lip. Finally, when Magic Johnson stepped up to the microphone in Los Angeles and he was wearing a dark blue suit and he was not smiling, suddenly you could feel a terrible chill run across this country, as if all the blood had run out of its veins.

“Because of the HIV virus I have contracted,” Johnson began, “I will have to retire from the Lakers today. . . .”

There will never be a sadder story than this. In a medical sense, it was merely a blip on the screen, one more victim of a tragic disease. And yet, this was so much worse; a cymbal crash between the ears, the true end of innocence. With one unforgiving blood test, our most beloved sports hero became our most stunning victim. Whatever we were all thinking Thursday, 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. . . .

“I’ll try to help the league in any way I can, if they’ll let me. . . .”

The urge was to jump through the TV screen and yell, “Hold it. Stop. This

is not right!”

This was not the good-bye party Magic Johnson, 32, deserved. There were supposed to be parades, tributes, highlight films, hip-hop music behind all those pictures, all those nights he lit up the court with blind passes and baby hook shots. The night he hugged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at midcourt, celebrating a title. The time he kissed Isiah Thomas. The time he pounded the floor after missing an 80- foot, desperation shot in the All-Star game.

“You didn’t really expect to make that, did you?” Johnson was asked.

“Oh, yeah,” he smiled. “I expect to make all my shots.”

Isn’t that right? Wasn’t he supposed to make all his shots? After all, he was not only a miracle of basketball talent, he was our finest sports ambassador, a beacon of joy, a symbol for every kid who ever found his pockets empty; hey look, there’s Magic, he made it. Keep your head up.

And now, suddenly, it will be others encouraging Magic to keep his head up. He is a patient now, a man in danger. The doctors at the press conference talked about “prolonging his life.” The image was as uncomfortable as sitting on nails. Aren’t some people supposed to be beyond this?

The answer, of course, is no. No one is beyond this. Ironically, the reason we all love Magic so much is that he has managed to be both human and legendary at the same time. Thursday evening, the human side flipped him on his back.

“I will now 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 were 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 are now 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.

“How did he get it?” people whisper. Who cares. This is where we are in the year 1991: The way we love can now come back to kill us. Does basketball matter?

The enormity of what has happened drips into your mind like some sort of water torture. It hits you in one drop that Magic Johnson will have to go for periodic hospital tests, just as it hits you in the next drop that we will never see him play another game in that familiar purple and gold Lakers jersey.

Back at the press conference, Johnson spoke of his career.

“I’ll miss the battles and the wars,” he said. “I’ll miss coming to the arena and saying hello to the security people. I’ll miss talking to you guys
(media). I’ll miss the game.”

The game? Does basketball even matter? Oh sure, TV and newspapers quickly assembled the tribute package: And so we heard how no one ever played point guard the way Magic Johnson did, how he won five NBA championship rings and three MVP awards. We heard how he and Larry Bird took a sagging league and breathed life into its form, dazzled it, dressed it in brilliant colors, until a worldwide audience began to turn its way. 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 day 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 the times he flew through the air and soared above the rim, never, ever, 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. . . . You have to come out swinging, and I’m swinging. . . .” The day America woke up

If there is a molecule of hope in the tears that were shed Thursday night, it is that we can now say this wholeheartedly to AIDS: You picked the wrong guy. He will fight you, he will tell everyone about you, whatever edge you gain through ignorance has just been eliminated. The Day Magic Johnson Retired will forever be linked with The Day America Woke Up About AIDS.

It is a small comfort, but small comfort may be all we find this morning.

“I appreciate all of you,” Johnson said before leaving. “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 the nation let out a collective gasp. What we have 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. In the eyes of this poison, we are all the same, potential victims. And unless we do something drastic right now, it will, one day, come after us all, even the magic ones.

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