For youths of today, hero worship doesn't have a prayer

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

November 08, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

On television last night, Earvin "Magic" Johnson sat before a score of journalists, a bank of microphones, a forest of television cameras, and told the world he had contracted the HIV -- AIDS virus.

His wife sat beside him. They have been married for about two months.

"This is not like my life is over," he said. "I'm going to live a long time. This is another challenge, another chapter in my life. It's like your back is against the wall and you just have to come out swinging. And that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go on. I'm going to beat it and I'm going to have fun."

My 11-year-old son stood silently before the television set.

"Um," he said. "This is a surprise."

I looked over at him.

"What do you think about this?" I asked.

"I'm sorry about it, I guess," he said. "I feel bad about it. Magic was one of my favorite players. It's too bad."

On television, Earvin "Magic" Johnson rose from his chair, took his wife's arm, turned and disappeared behind some curtains.

Doctors and team officials remained to answer questions -- questions about AIDS, about the virus that causes it, about the abrupt termination of Magic's magical basketball career.

My 11-year-old son watched all of this in silence. I watched him in silence.

His world seems so very different from my world at 11.

Now, it seems that as fast as sports heroes are raised up, something comes to knock them back down. They succumb to drug abuse, they sustain career-ending injuries, they -- our hopes for an exciting new season by holding out for more money.

Now, the most charismatic sports hero of them all has contracted the AIDS virus. His career is over. He is fighting for his life.

All of this seems far too grim and sudden for small children, the stuff of nightmares and lifetime trauma. The world seems dangerous and treacherous, today, unfair and cruel.

It never seemed that way when I was young.

The televised press conference over, my son started to leave the room.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"Sure," he said calmly.

"Do you understand what AIDS is?"

"Oh, yeah," he answered, "we talked about it in school."

He stands with his body tilted slightly towards the door, as though the outside world was tugging on him, as if he longed to be free.

That's OK, though. He often stands like that.

But he doesn't look traumatized.

He doesn't look confused or shocked or particularly frightened by the sudden unpredictability of the world and the mortality of its heroes.

I'm the one who is confused and shocked.

It occurred to me that I am supposed to say something wise and comforting to my son right about here: Maybe that for all of his feats on the court, Magic showed the greatest character, the truest courage, in that televised press conference when he vowed to keep on fighting although he must have been devastated by the news.

Or maybe I should have said something about AIDS, the disease that invariably kills, maybe acknowledging that AIDS is scary and sad but also avoidable with the right precautions.

Or maybe I should have said something about death.

Death.

The record shows that Magic Johnson, a man whose effervescent personality shone both on and off of the basketball court, will eventually contract the disease and die.

But my heart was too heavy.

Magic, himself, showed more courage.

Maybe I'll say all of these things tomorrow.

"Do you have any questions?" I asked after a while.

"No," said my son.

"OK," I said.

Then he went outside to play.

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