WITH ITS half-moon backboards and narrow sidelines, the gym at the Madison Square Recreation Center is a long way from the Great Western Forum, the glittering playground of movie stars, Laker Girls and, until yesterday, Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
The young basketball players who come to the basement gym on Biddle Street on East Baltimore feel a kinship with the former Lakers star. And many of them wore the stunned look of someone who has lost a family member when they learned that Johnson is retiring from professional basketball after testing positive for the AIDS virus.
Patrick Lee, a 12th-grader at St. Frances Academy, sat in a folding chair along the sideline as a team practiced on the gym floor. He said that when he first heard that Johnson had the AIDS virus and was leaving basketball, he did not believe it.
"I thought the guy was joking when he said that to me," Lee said over the din of squeaking sneakers and barked instructions. "I didn't believe that could happen to Magic Johnson. He's the best. This is surprising. It's sad."
Lee also said that Johnson's illness drove home the grim reality of the AIDS virus.
"When it comes to basketball, he, along with Michael Jordan, is the first person you think of," Lee said. "And now hearing this makes you think anybody can get AIDS -- and they can."
Keon Chavez, 14, wore sweat pants and a T-shirt that was about the color purple that the Lakers wear. And, while he said the color of his outfit was just a coincidence, he is very much a Johnson fan.
"I heard this on the radio and made sure I came here to tell the guys. I looked up to him," Chavez said. "I like the way he played. I like the way he deals with the public."
Chavez just shook his head as he pondered what Johnson faces now that he has the AIDS virus. "This is so shocking. You wonder how he got it. But, in a way, you have an idea."
Not only the young ballplayers at Madison were upset. One of their coaches, who has volunteered hours and hours to teach the game to a generation of players, transport his players to tournaments and raise money for the team's endeavors, said he had a difficult time taking the news.
"I'm taking this kind of hard myself," said Andrew Boston, who for 20 years has coached the Madison Square Buccaneers, a renowned recreation league team. "It kind of gets to you. I just feel bad for him."
Boston has coached his share of ballplayers over the years, including guys who went on to be pros, college stars and some of the best high school basketball players in the area. And, he says, just about every ballplayer he knows respects Johnson.
"All of the kids look up to him. He's Magic," Boston said. "I think they'll continue to look up to him. Something like this can happen to just about anybody."
During his storied basketball career Johnson, 32, led the Lakers to five NBA championships. He also led Michigan State University to a college title. Beyond that, he is known as a corporate spokesman, a role model, budding businessman and an ambassador for a game with a burgeoning following worldwide.
"This is just terrible because I really love Magic," said Orlando Ranson, a 10th grader. "He's one of my idols. I like his personality. I like the way he plays on the court. He helped kids. He sponsored charity games. He just did it all."
Eric Bass, 16, said, "I flipped when I heard the news. I couldn't believe it." Bass is 6-2 and plays guard on the basketball court. When Bass is in a game, he sometimes tries to emulate the 6-9 Johnson, because "just like him, I am a little taller than some of the guys at my position."
Amid all the disbelief, some of the youths at Madison Square said that Johnson's illness made the very real threat posed by the AIDS virus more menacing than it seems in pamphlets and classroom discussions.
"I didn't want to believe it," said Corry Drumgold, a high school senior who plays the same position Johnson did -- point guard. "It's funny. We were just talking about the AIDS virus in school today, and how anybody can get it. It's real."