WITH A magician, the hand is always quicker than the eye. But with Magic Johnson, the smile is quicker than the I.
The dazzle of that smile seems to have blinded some people to the egotistical essence of Earvin "Magic" Johnson's having tested positive for the HIV virus that causes AIDS. He has been hailed by many as a "hero," when hedonist might be the better word.
In explaining why he recently tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, he acknowledges that he can't be specific.
"I am certain," he wrote in last week's Sports Illustrated, "that I was infected by having unprotected sex with a woman who has the virus. The problem is that I can't pinpoint the time, the place or the woman. It's a matter of numbers. Before I was married, I truly lived the bachelor's life. I'm no Wilt Chamberlain, but as I traveled around the NBA cities, I was never at a loss for female companionship."
While insisting that he has "never had a homosexual relationship -- never," he writes that his sex life in Los Angeles before his Sept. 14 marriage wasn't any different than it was on road trips with the Lakers.
"There were just some bachelors that almost every woman in Los Angeles wanted to be with: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and Magic Johnson. I confess that after I arrived in L.A. in 1979, I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could -- most of them through unprotected sex."
If one definition of "hero" is model or ideal, as Webster's Third New International Dictionary attests, Magic Johnson is hardly a model or ideal to anyone with a sense of sexual morality.
Magic's message now is, "If I can get it, anybody can." But anybody with a sense of heterosexual responsibility isn't likely to get the HIV virus.
Possessed by the sex-symbol syndrome that affects so many marquee athletes, Magic apparently never pretended to be responsible for his sex life.
Magic Johnson is a victim, not a hero.
Sympathize with him as you would for anyone who has contracted the dreaded HIV virus, not just someone who belongs with the best basketball players in history.
Applaud his plans to be a missionary for AIDS organizations, including the National Commission on AIDS if President Bush appoints him to a vacant seat.
Say a prayer for him. But since his disclosure two weeks ago, too many people sound as if they're praying to him.
He's not St. Magic of Sunset Boulevard; he's Earvin Johnson of the Fast Lane who finally got caught for speeding.
He was hailed for his "courage" in going public with his announcement. That wasn't courage; he had no choice. He knew he couldn't possibly cover up a sudden retirement. What could he say? That just as the Lakers' season opened, he had decided to close his career? He knew that the truth would have emerged. And with his smile, he made it sound as if he had just signed a new multimillion dollar contract to promote what he calls "safe sex."
Ironically, there's already talk of a Magic Johnson condom to supplement the $12 million he has earned annually in recent years from endorsements. He can thank his image.
If, say, Mike Tyson disclosed he had tested positive and preached safe sex, would he be considered a hero? Not likely. Tyson's history of sexist incidents has established a different image. But with Magic acknowledging so many trysts with so many women in so many cities, he seems to be equally sexist.
In the confusion, pro basketball and other sports are waiting for other HIV positive athletes to emerge.
Privately, people in the NBA office weren't surprised that one of their marquee players tested positive, but they were surprised that Magic Johnson was that marquee player.
By the nature of a team's schedule, the life of an NBA player is a series of one-night stands that encourages sexual one-night stands for these tall, physical, sometimes handsome and often rich athletes.
In his recent autobiography, "View from Above," Wilt Chamberlain wrote of having had 20,000 sexual encounters. Almost one for each of his 23,924 regular-season rebounds.
But with that smile, Magic Johnson writes that having contracted the HIV virus is "God's way" of directing him "to become a teacher, to carry the message about the dangers of AIDS to everyone" after he educates himself about the disease.
"Everything I've done," he writes, "He's directed me."
Not quite everything, as Magic Johnson knows too well now.
P Dave Anderson is a sports columnist for the New York Times. 1/2