We know how quickly shock memory fades. So, after 10 years, it’s hard to remember how utterly devastated we felt when we heard the news. It was Thursday, Nov. 7, 1991. I was the top editor of Sports Illustrated at the time, and I walked into to my office after lunch to find one of my senior editors, Roy Johnson, waiting for me.
“Did you hear?” he said. “Magic has HIV. He’s going to retire.”
HIV meant AIDS, and AIDS meant death and not much else then. But in this case it also meant that the first significant figure from the sports world to succumb would be its most popular.
Roy and I both knew Magic pretty well. So, as journalists did on Sept. 11, 2001, we chased our immediate grief by planning how to cover the enormous story. Roy would fly to L.A. to conduct the exclusive first interview with Magic, but beyond that there was another problem -- a top-secret problem -- that would need to be solved.
Only a handful of need-to-know people at SI knew that Magic was just months away from making, perhaps, the biggest splash of his already splashy career. He was going to be the first man ever to appear in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Yes, topless, and yes, with them.
I can tell you it’s true because the decision was mine. The Swimsuit Issue of March 9, 1992, would celebrate the coming Barcelona Olympics, with the usual coterie of barely-clad babes shot at locations throughout Spain.
I had inherited the top edit job a year earlier, and decided it was time to spice up the act with some man-flesh, but of course it couldn’t be just any jock. It would have to be someone who, like the famous models, truly belonged (wink-wink) in a sports magazine.
1992. Olympic year. Dream Team. (We also forget what a huge deal it was that a team of pro superstars was finally going to be allowed in the Olympics.) Could it be anybody else?
I called Magic’s agent, Lon Rosen, to make the proposal and -- surprise, surprise -- I had him at hello. Magic was most definitely in, and it so happened that the Lakers would actually be in Spain, playing a late-October preseason tournament in Madrid.
Though we tried, we couldn’t get the shoot done then. Instead, we set up a date to shoot Magic in Santa Monica -- in early November. Magic would convene a special session of Showtime on a beachside court in his scantiest shorts and nothing more, along with the girls of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming team -- and maybe one or two professional “swimsuit consultants.” It would all be in the name of good clean fun.
As I sent Roy Johnson off to L.A., I knew that plan was sunk, and began tearing up the current week's issue to cover the sports story of the decade.
The next day I get a call from Lon Rosen. Roy has arrived to interview Magic about the heterosexual promiscuity that Magic says led to his condition, but now Magic has set down a condition for the interview to proceed.
“John,” says Rosen. “Magic wants you to confirm that he’s still going to be in the Swimsuit Issue.”
“John, he really wants to do it. He’s been looking forward to it and doesn’t think this development should change things.”
I had to give it to Rosen straight. “Lon, he’s saying that he had unprotected sex with lots of women other than his wife. I don’t think he, or anyone connected with him, will feel good seeing picture of him in February cavorting in his underwear with bikini-clad women.”
Magic went ahead and gave Roy the interview.
I saw him six weeks later in Chicago, the night I presented Michael Jordan with SI’s Sportsman of the Year award.
He looked great.
Said to me, “Hey John. Next year can I be in the Swimsuit Issue?”
I didn’t say yes, but I thought there might just be a chance.
John Papanek is editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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