Magic the person, not the player, finally gets his due

JOHN EISENBERG

November 09, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

You were standing there watching it on television Thursday evening and someone said, "I think I might cry," and you wondered yourself, because you crossed paths with Magic Johnson so many times and there he was now on your screen refusing not to smile as he told the world about testing HIV-positive.

Then he was done and the TV was off and you sat there dumbfounded with a million thoughts racketing around your head, and as strange as it sounds, this was what you kept coming back to: At least now everyone was in on the secret you'd known for so long, which was that he always shone more because of who he was, not what he did.

You would always say that when people asked about him, and they did ask you because you were in the locker room with him so often, but you always felt they didn't really believe you when you said he was even more remarkable as a person than a player.

You always felt they would just say, yeah, yeah, we see that big smile on TV, but not really believe you. Because this was one of the best players in history, after all. How could his star shine brighter off the court?

The thing was, they couldn't possibly see it. You needed a press pass to have the privilege of seeing Magic off the court, up close, when the sheer force of his buoyant spirit really separated him from all the rest.

You were lucky. You saw it so often, in so many circumstances, in so many stages of his life.

You were there at the Final Four in March of 1979, when he was a sophomore at Michigan State and everyone learned his name. You were a senior at Penn and your school's team played his, and he was playing this game no one had seen before, as big as a center and deft as a guard. His team scored 36 of the first 42 points. Ouch.

But then afterward he was up on this podium in front of hundreds of reporters, smiling that thousand-watter and telling stories and going on about what a blast this was, and all these grumpy pressboxers sat there grinning a little sheepishly at each other, saying: Is this kid a kick, or what?

You were there when he came into an NBA that, let's be blunt, was considered a league for selfish blacks on drugs. And here came this heartbreakingly clean kid running above all that, every aspect of it, more interested in passing than scoring, so exuberant about just playing. Making everyone feel good just by talking.

It was said Magic and Larry Bird were the ones who brought the league out of its gloom, and that's true, but Magic was the more important of the two, by far, for Magic was the one who all but single-handedly destroyed so many wretched myths about black NBA players. Destroyed them by being what he is, but more so, who he is.

You were there that night in Dallas in 1982 when the Mavericks and Lakers played 48 rollicking minutes before a shrieking crowd and Dallas won in the last second and everyone roared, but there was Magic afterward cutting through it all, smiling and talking about, wow, that was fantastic and this league is getting pretty damn good, you know?

You were there at the 1983 All-tar Game, the day that, in your mind, the NBA's ascendancy really took off. Marvin Gaye sang the anthem, a wild Motown version, and the crowd was screeching at the boldness and the players were stone-faced and afraid to move, knowing it wasn't good politics to rock with this crazy anthem on TV . . .

But then there was Magic looking over and giving it that grin, his OK: the only one unafraid to say, in essence, that there wasn't a thing wrong with this burgeoning league of black athletes showing its real character to the rest of the country.

You were there on that day during the 1984 Finals against the Celtics, when he'd already given an hour of interviews and you were the only one left and you asked him about a play and he grabbed your notebook and pen and diagrammed it, lines and arrows and all, making sure you understood and then patting you on the back.

So many moments, so many circumstances, so many stages of his life. To this day you feel like you know him even if you don't, which is his real Magic. And so you sat there watching him Thursday evening, this kid you'd watched grow into a man before your very eyes, and you didn't think about basketball. You thought about him.

About his suddenly slim chances of living a long life. About the awful moment when the doctor told him. About -- you found out later -- his wife being seven weeks pregnant and whether that kid is going to get to spend a lot of years with dad. The

thing is, you didn't have to be there to know he would be cheering up the people around him, carrying on, that he will be a tireless spokesman for his new cause. You hang around Magic long enough, you know he'll do all the right things.

But then everyone knows that now. They saw him Thursday evening, smiling as he gave us the news, talking about fighting it, not flinching, so upbeat and graceful and dignified even though you knew he was devastated.

That was -- is -- the real Magic Johnson: the one-in-a-million spirit. And as you sat there watching and wondering what kind of mad, mad world you're bringing your kids into, this was what you thought: It wouldn't be such a mad world at all if only there were more people like this.

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