Magic's courage, dignity will shine through in end

MIKE LITTWIN

November 24, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The Magic Johnson story has taken the expected twists and turns. We have moved from shock to sadness to re-evaluation to, in some cases, revisionism. Eventually, we'll sort it all out.

I can give you the ending now, if you want to cut to the chase: Johnson will emerge as a dignified and courageous spokesman for a disease that has been too long stigmatized. Too bad that it takes a star to illumine the shadows, but no one could ask for one with greater appeal than Earvin Johnson.

Meantime, there are questions, and many are fair.

Perhaps no one warned us there were no heroes up close. Johnson's flaw -- a flaw that will likely prove fatal -- was his promiscuity. In his words, he "accommodated" women. In his words, he was rarely without them. He believed, as many do, that women can be considered trophies. That is not heroic behavior certainly, and, to some, it is painful. Those people are angry with Johnson -- and so it goes. There are victims all around.

Johnson was, of course, single at the time. The sex was, of course, consensual. There are people who are angry that Johnson did not take an AIDS test before marriage, an understandable position. What we take from this is that all people must be responsible.

We are ambivalent about sex in this society. On one hand, we use sex to sell beer, soft drinks, shampoo, cars and chewing gum, and, on the other, we can condemn promiscuity. To say that sex sells is vastly to understate the case. Sex is everywhere. It's in the movies, it's on your TV. Turn on MTV for 12 seconds, and count the tight miniskirts while you listen to the suggestive, often sexist lyric. Where do we learn about responsible sex?

And in Johnson's subset of Americana -- the one that includes famous athletes, actors, rock stars, politicians -- sex is not simply easily available. Women literally throw themselves at these stars. I've seen it. Back in the early '70s, when I covered pro basketball, there was a little association called the Six-Mile-High Club. If you could get a stewardess (these were 7/8 pre-flight-attendant days) to accompany you into the airplane bathroom, you were a member. There are a million stories like that.

Men who engage is such behavior obviously don't respect the women. And yet, Johnson was never accused of forcing himself on anyone. No one has alleged he was a serial buttocks fondler. He didn't write a book boasting of having had sex with 20,000 women. And no one is suggesting he had sex outside marriage, as did, say, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and tens of millions of others.

He was single, and he had casual sex with women. On the scale of crimes, there are many worse.

There are other questions. Martina Navratilova, who is a lesbian, wondered how America would have responded had she and not Johnson -- an avowed heterosexual -- contracted the virus. It is safe to say the reaction would be different, and that is sad. But it is not Johnson's fault. I will suggest here that Johnson will embrace the gay community and not distance himself from it. I will suggest that, in this, too, he will be courageous.

Is Magic Johnson a hero? I don't know. What is a hero? How do you define it? I'm pretty sure it is not heroic for a president to name a superstar to an AIDS commission and then think he has dealt with the issue.

I know this -- that Johnson has many admirable qualities, beginning, of course, with those he displayed on a basketball court. That's why he's famous. But the smile is genuine. He is genuinely a giving person who takes time with people who can never help him, who organizes as well as participates in charity events, who has always seemed unaffected by his stardom. When he was a kid in college and jobs were given athletes as a token, Johnson insisted that his be meaningful. He wanted to learn how to run a business of his own. He wanted to be a real

person. And how's this: With beautiful Hollywood women at his apparent beck and call, whom did Johnson marry? That's right. His childhood sweetheart.

Maybe that last bit meant he was growing up at age 32, moving out from under an extended adolescence. I think we'll hear him talk about safe sex and responsible sex. I hope he talks about teen-age pregnancy. I hope he and other athletes encourage youngsters to understand that macho behavior is self-defeating. hope he puts his face -- his stamp -- on this plague and insists we're all at risk.

By himself, he won't make a critical difference, any more than Len Bias' tragedy did. But he'll try. That's what Johnson did on the day he told us he had tested HIV-positive. He stood up and looked the world in the eye and didn't blink. Suddenly, a disease that many found shameful became a tragedy that we could all understand.

We'll remember Magic Johnson for his basketball, and, watch, ++ we'll remember him for how he handles this tragedy. But I think mostly we'll remember him for that day. And, in the end, I'm sure we'll remember him well.

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