He told us about his problem at the dinner table. Or so it seemed. He pushed back his chair and stood in front of us, and at first we thought he was going to make some kind of joke or tell some kind of happy story. He always has been good at that, making us smile. That has been part of his charm. He even had a pleasant look on his face as he began to speak.
"...I will have to retire from the Lakers...." Magic Johnson told us.
"What?" we said.
"I don't have the AIDS disease," he said. "But I do have the HIV virus...."
November 18, 1991
The news was so dramatic, so incredible, that we didn't even allow it into our heads the first time he spoke the words. HIV-positive? Must be a mistake. Magic? Nonsense. When he continued and the idea took hold, a chill went through us all, a personal chill reserved for only the most dire of family pronouncements. The foreman at the plant had called and said there was an accident.... The laboratory results were back and the tumor was found to be.... A crash on the highway and one of the kids in the car apparently was....
"What?" we asked again, dumbfounded.
"How?" we asked. "Why?"
An insulation of miles and distance and anonymity did not exist. This sadness was here, now, inside the locked front door and right in the room. It was part of the air we breathed. A gunman can go crazy in Killeen. Texas, and fires can burn in the hills of Oakland, and the homeless can even stare directly into our faces on the street, and the connections at best are superficial. Too bad for these people. Isn't it a shame? Too bad. But Magic.... This is someone who has lived in our house for 10 years, 12 years, for as long as some of our children can remember.
He has told us what soft drink he prefers and what shoes he wears and how drugs can kill and why staying in school is very important. There has never been a time he did not want to talk, so we know so much more about him than just the basketball stuff. We know his background. We know his worries in the present, his plans for the future. We know his laugh, the sound of his voice, his smile. He has shared his joys and his disappointments with us without reservation. He has probably spent more time with us—and we have spent more time with him—than most of our blood relatives.
Now he was sick? A disease that we had viewed mostly with passive dismay was suddenly immediate, real. Magic has the virus? He will probably get AIDS? He will probably...die? The explanations for all of those other AIDS deaths, the talk of tainted blood supplies and gay relationships and intravenous drug use, could not be applied. Those on the list of so many other names, even the actors and directors and fashion designers, even the five athletes known to have died of AIDS—football player Jerry Smith, decathlete Tom Waddell, baseball player Alan Wiggins, boxer Esteban DeJesus, stock-car driver Tim Richmond—always seemed remote. Other people. Strangers. Magic's problem was our problem. He was at the table.
"I had a physical for an insurance policy," he explained. "The results came back Wednesday...."
"This is another challenge...."
"I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus...."
He looked the way he has always looked, vibrant and positive and strong. It was only a couple of weeks ago that he was telling us about his trip to Paris with the Los Angeles Lakers. Magic in Paris. Wasn't that a perfect match? There was a picture of him in front of the Eiffel Tower. A couple of weeks before that, he was on that television show, being announced as a member of the first all-star, all-world U.S.A. Olympic basketball team. Weren't we all laughing at the audaciousness of this powerful conglomeration, the best basketball team ever put together? Magic-was wearing a tuxedo. A couple of weeks before that he had married his college sweetheart. Another tuxedo.
The thought that this disease—that any disease, in fact—could touch this 32-year-old man was flat-out ludicrous. How could this be? He had always been blessed, always a character of ultimate good fortune. Not only did his outsized body do things that most normal-sized bodies cannot do, but he also had an upbeat style and a zip-a-dee-doo-dah bounce to him that were rare. A bluebird seemed to sit on his shoulder every single day. He was a pleasure, a treat, more than a basketball player. A happy, positive spirit. If he could be vulnerable, then what about us?
"Magic." we said, "tell us that this is a mistake. Something must have happened to the blood samples in the lab. Some secretary must have typed a wrong name on a form. Something. Maybe there's another Earvin Johnson. Maybe he's the one."
"Magic," we said, "have a seat. There must be something these doctors can do. You don't have to retire. The doctors will give you something, and you will be all right. You will be back out there, going against Larry Bird, the two of you, back and forth. Larry had that bad back and now seems to be O.K. So the doctors will do something for you, too. Don't say you'll never play again. Don't."
The whir of all of these jumbled thoughts did not disappear when he took his leave, promising to be back, promising to talk some more, promising to try to beat this affliction. Our dinners sat and became cold as we discussed subjects we had never really discussed. We called friends. We talked about the dignity of the man, about how he confronted his situation without shame or evasion. We talked about his life in the past and his life as it now must be. Our televisions and radios were tuned to the news. Our newspapers were soon filled with commentaries and quotes from famous people, and stories about larger implications and possible changes.
The President expressed his sympathy from Rome. There were moments of emotion in various NBA arenas. Hot-line phones began to ring and ring at various AIDS clinics. Donations began to arrive. Schoolchildren were interviewed, asked how they felt. AIDS victims were interviewed, asked how they felt. There was a maudlin side to a lot of the stories that were done—the television newsmen talking in past tense, almost as if the man were dead; the highlight films playing to a background of symphony strings. But that was the feeling: Everything was intense, personal. The tight lips and faraway eyes of Bird and of Isiah Thomas and of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were the tight lips and faraway eyes of everyone.
"Who could have touched people the way Magic Johnson has touched people?" we asked each other. "Who could have contracted this virus and shocked us more? Name an actor. Name a singer. Name a politician or a religious leader. Name another athlete. Who has stepped from that television screen and into our lives any more than Magic has? Who has been a bigger friend? Who else has been family?"
There was some talk about the fate of Lou Gehrig, struck down in the midst of his career by another incurable disease in 1939. There were similarities, to be sure—a young man and a sad fate—but this was very much different. Gehrig was a name in the newspaper, a remote speck on a baseball diamond. Technology has brought a universal intimacy. Magic is here. Magic is now. Magic is us.
We sit around and talk some more in quiet voices. A clock ticks in the background. The smallest pieces of life suddenly seem out of kilter. A 20th-century plague has hit our home.