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Murray story archive
Still stunning the world 10 years later
That Magic touch
Sex and sports: Still sizzling on the sidelines
Magic does disappearing act as AIDS spokesman
Wednesday, November 7, 2001
Warning, HIV: No hiding now
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 10, 1991.
Never see Magic coming down the floor with the basketball again? Never see this little lopsided grin as he chivies the defender around like a yo-yo, then suddenly bursts with a behind-the-back, no-look pass to an open teammate for a baseline jumper? Never see that again?!
Magic, the most unselfish great player I have ever seen in any sport?
Magic, the superstar who actually liked us ink-stained wretches of the press, who stayed in the locker room until the last notebook was filled, the last microphone talked into, the last hand shook?
Wait a minute, God. Please! You can't do that to us! Not Magic. Tell us, it's not Magic. There has just been a terrible mistake made here. Magic doesn't deserve this. We don't deserve this. You can't take away Showtime USA. Those happy nights at the Forum when Magic had the ball and everything was going to be all right and the audience was standing and cheering and laughing and it was good to be alive and at a Laker game and you went home and petted the dog and kissed the kids and reminded yourself to give at the office so the poor people could feel as good as you did.
Magic did that to the community. Shucks, he did that to the game. You mentioned Magic's name and you smiled. So did the one hearing it. He brought a smile to L.A.'s face. He shouldn't be breaking our hearts now. Not Magic's style. I tell you, it's a ghastly mistake. Somebody up there goofed.
And how he could play basketball! The game was invented for people like Magic. It was like watching Nureyev doing "Swan Lake," Astaire dancing down stairs. I always said Magic Johnson with the basketball was Babe Ruth with a bat, Willie Mays with a glove, Rocky Marciano with his nose cut, Caruso with a high C, Nicklaus with a one-iron, John Wayne with a horse. It was one of the great sights and sounds of our age. The throaty roar built as he moved. Not moved, flowed.
He had this marvelous charisma on court. He is 6 feet 9, 225 pounds, and, if you were a defender, you wanted to call 911 when you saw him coming. To a backpedaling guard, he must have seemed like the iceberg bearing down on the Titanic, but he managed to look like Bambi out there. All innocence and grace.
The Lakers were Magic's team. He made the shots, he called the shots, he took over the game.
What's Larry Bird going to do without him? Isiah? Hell, what's basketball going to do without him?
I remember the first time I saw Earvin Johnson. It was in 1979, the Lakers had just signed him and owner Jack Kent Cooke had arranged an interview for me. I was having catastrophic eye problems at the time and could hardly see across the table. But you could see Magic's smile anywhere. It was gracious of him to consent to this awkward interview, but Magic was, above everything, gracious.
You perceive a lot when you can't see, and what I heard in the voice of this new young recruit was kindness. Compassion. I realized this was not just some cocky young jock, this was something special. Such a happy, upbeat person. Magic brought no baggage with him. Magic seemed to feel his mission in life was to make everybody feel good. Magic wanted to be liked.
We knew we had to lose him eventually -- say about 2001. But not this way. Magic should have gone out with a farewell tour, with flowers at his feet, balloons over his head, outpourings of love and gratitude, gifts, plaques, streets named after him.
HIV may have picked on the wrong guy this time. There's a way to play HIV -- go into seclusion, shut off your phone, cancel your mailing address, go into a cave of your own fears and hide.
But there's a way to play Larry Bird, too. And Michael Jordan. That's to take it to them. Pick them up in the backcourt. Draw the foul. Steal the ball. Make them work for it.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows him that's the way Magic is going to play this latest foe, too. If AIDS thinks it has a clear shot to the basket, it hasn't been paying attention. Magic is not about to put his hands up in the air and take this lying down. Magic is going out to meet this terrible foe, too. Take the ball away from it.
HIV may have blown its cover this time. Plagues work best in darkness and silence. Embarrassment is its ally.
Magic is not going to let it get away with it. He served notice by appearing forthrightly in public, baring his soul, knocking the chip off the enemy's shoulder. He's going to block this shot, too. A champion does not quit in his corner. A hero does not cower in the dark.
Magic wants this ball, too. He got a rotten break. But the great ones do not foul out. HIV may have gotten a rotten break, too. Heretofore, it has had things all its own way.
Nobody has things all its own way against Magic Johnson. Ask Bird, Isiah, Dominique, Jordan. Magic may be winning something far more important than a Final Four, an NBA championship, Player of the Year. Magic may be winning for a whole generation. Let's pray he can slam-dunk this one. Let's hope he can find the open man at the top of the key at the buzzer in this one.
If he can, I want to see that smile!
This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.
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