AIDS virus robs basketball of its magic Like Magic, Johnson is smiling through our tears

MIKE LITTWIN

November 08, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Where to begin? How to begin?

There's no precedent here to work from. There was Lou Gehrig at the end of his career and Ernie Davis at the beginning of his.

But this, this. This is different.

You tell me Magic Johnson tested HIV-positive, and I don't know what to say. I could say that he was the greatest player who ever lived and that this wasn't even the most important thing about his game. What was essential, even unique, about the way he played basketball was the joy he took from it and the joy we took from it.

I could say that what you need to know, what is most important to know, about Earvin Johnson is that the famous smile was as genuine as sunshine. There has never been an athlete who allowed us to embrace him and his game the way Magic Johnson did.

But, surely, that's not enough.

The news is too shocking. It's too much, too horrible, too incredible to absorb. You don't simply say Earvin Johnson tested HIV-positive and go from there. You're stopped cold. You try to place it in context, and you don't find one that works.

The best I could come up with was that we now have a working definition for the concept that life is unfair.

Did you see him? He stood up yesterday and told the world his tragic news right there on TV. I heard him say he was infected with the virus, that he had to quit the game he had helped to redefine, and that he was prepared, in his second life, to become a spokesman for AIDS awareness. Whatever he has lost, it is not his ability to touch us. He said he wanted to live all the life he could and to make a difference with the life he had left.

What he will do -- what he has already done -- is to give light to the dark shadow that is AIDS. It's as he said: If it can happen to Magic Johnson, it can happen to anyone. He has personalized andthereby legitimized the disease for which he will now become a champion. Nothing, and no one, could have a greater impact.

He told us, and he even managed a smile. That he brought the smile with him in a time of the deepest personal loss -- that was the first thing about this entire affair I believed.

OK, you call someone Magic and you expect the incredible. But you do not -- cannot -- expect this.

Is there any point in discussing championships and MVP awards, or even that Magic, in concert with Larry Bird, saved the NBA? How about this: He was the all-time NBA leader in assists. Doesn't mean much now, does it?

But let me tell you about Earvin Johnson, the real stuff. Many of your sports heroes don't care about you. Some even laugh at you. Most try desperately to avoid any contact with you. Your typical hero finds celebrity a burden that is lessened only by that enriching shoe contract. Earvin Johnson is not like that. He invented Showtime, and he invented it as a participation sport -- for him, for you, for me.

He was -- is -- a real-life person. He liked -- likes -- real-life people. You would want to know him, and not because he's famous. There are a million moments to remember from his career of no-look passes and baby skyhooks and blue-collar rebounds and just the presence of a 6-foot-9 basketball genius, but the one I'll keep was from his first pro game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had just won it with the real skyhook, whereupon Magic leaped into his arms. It was one game in 82, Kareem told him, but it was a lesson Magic never quite learned. But we learned plenty about him.

Not that every moment was perfect. He missed important shots that lost important games. There was the ugly business when a coach he didn't like was fired. But none of it soured him, not when there was so much joy in his life. If you know him, you understand that he's trying very hard not to let this sour him either.

He talked bravely yesterday. He talked about continuing his dream of owning a pro basketball team, and certainly no one wants to put limitations on his future. Those with HIV have gone 10 years before developing AIDS. There is always hope of a cure, and, for Magic, there is hope to be found simply in hope.

In the coming years, he will represent a message of hope to the afflicted. More important, he will bring a message to young people that they are not immune to this plague and that they must protect themselves from it. And, perhaps most important, he will bring a message to others that the tragedy has a name. He will bring a message that AIDS need not be a matter of shame.

Rock Hudson's death awoke many to AIDS. But Magic's life will be a constant, dignified reminder. And, so, there is much important work for him to do. But I wish, as much as I wish anything, he didn't have to do it.

Magic's tragedy is, of course, no greater than that of tens of thousands of others. But I know him. Many of us know him, or think we do. Certainly, he has touched millions of people around the world. He has transcended his sport, just as he will now transcend his disease.

And when he broke the news to us, he somehow managed a smile. I wish I could find mine.

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