In AIDS-weary world, Magic's exit is relief to many

November 03, 1992|By S.L. Price | S.L. Price,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Everybody has a connection. Mine is the teacher I once knew, a brilliant man whose energy burned. He cared too much and wanted a world of quality, he was one of the best ever, and he ran out of time. He never told me what it was, but I knew. You always know.

Then there was the landlord: He got very sick and very thin, and then he didn't come around anymore.

Then there was my wife's good friend: He had gotten married and was happy, then she got a phone call. He died, too.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson retired again yesterday, his news coming sudden to a world gone weary with AIDS. Everybody knows somebody, or knows someone who knows somebody else. The revelations keep coming, but the compassion is more remembered than felt now. It is exhausting to feel bad all the time.

So when Johnson succumbed to a recent blitz of controversy and seamy speculation over his planned return to the NBA and announced for the second time he was leaving, it came as no surprise to find his words received with nothing so much as quiet relief. Professional sports, it turns out, is nowhere near ready to handle the most feared disease of the day.

All in all, it was an awful parting -- and nothing like the first time. A year ago the best point guard in basketball history held a nationally televised news conference, the only composed man in a room full of shock. In a scene electrified by his odd composure, Johnson told the world he had the virus that causes AIDS, said he was retiring. He stood up without shame.

But yesterday wasn't like that. After fashioning a dramatic comeback bejeweled by an MVP Award of the 1992 All-Star Game and an Olympic gold medal, after months spent working out in weight rooms and gyms to get ready for the season that begins Friday, Johnson said he was leaving in a few short paragraphs. He was nowhere to be seen.

"I've come to realize that it simply isn't possible to return to playing in the NBA and still continue to be involved in all the things I want to do," Johnson's statement read. "Although my family has given me their support to return to the Lakers, I feel that it is more important to spend my time with them, as well as continuing with HIV and AIDS education projects than in the competitive and time-consuming world of the NBA."

Of course, Johnson was lying. The competitive and time-consuming world of the NBA was all he has ever been about: The travel, the women, the playing.

Last spring, during the Miami Heat playoff series with the Chicago Bulls, he was in Chicago doing TV work. He sat talking about how good he felt, how much stronger he was, how the time off helped him. His face, his body language radiated this incredible longing -- he missed playing so much you could almost touch it. Asked if he was coming back, he just laughed. We all knew the answer was yes.

But since then, that precise longing has thrown the league into a welter of confusion. At a recent meeting, two of the NBA's owners stood up and spoke adamantly against his playing again. Others argued for Johnson, but the division ran deep. League officials also discussed the dangers of allowing such a precedent, and wondered whether a fringe player with AIDS would or should be accorded the same royal treatment.

Meanwhile, the players who questioned the wisdom of playing on the same court as Johnson in last February's All-Star Game were joined recently by the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone and others unnamed. All wondered about their health, about coming in contact with the open sores and cuts that are as common in basketball as jump shots and sneakers. Some said they would purposely alter their games to avoid contact.

AIDS is a horror. The players who fear it are not wrong. The thought crosses any sane person's mind.

"It has become obvious that the various controversies surrounding my return are taking away from both basketball as a sport and the larger issue of living with HIV for me and the many people affected," Johnson's statement said. And here he told the truth.

Because for the past month, what had once been a wonderful tale showed all the signs of going sour. All through his Olympic summer, Johnson had been hailed as some kind of medical pioneer, an AIDS victim capable of playing the most grueling game. Where many once saw horror, they now saw hope.

But all that had been sickly predicated on acceptance by mainstream America: So long as Johnson contracted the disease through straight sex, he was still a viable commercial property, still a network commodity. Then came the recent weird rumblings about a player saying Johnson had gotten the disease through homosexual contact -- and that Magic believed the whispers came from his former best friend, Pistons guard Isiah Thomas.

That kind of speculation -- and the certainty that it would never end -- drove Johnson out. So did the knowledge that his peers might guard him more as a pariah than player, that they would no longer give him the game he needs, that he would prove nothing more by playing a phantom sport. In the end, even though he felt good, the AIDS virus took Johnson's life away.

Sports is a black-and-white world, with clear winners and defined endings. Heroes with diseases die young. There are no books about stars who look great but have slow death coursing through them, no inspiring stories about losing bits of hair and skin. Johnson's mistake came from believing that all he had to do was play well again.

He didn't know he didn't fit any more.

He didn't know, not until yesterday, that too many tired people wanted him to just go away. Then he went into hiding, a class man forced into a crouch. He put his hand to his ear, and all he heard was silence.

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