Back to Reality
One of the best things about his Olympic experience, said Magic Johnson in Barcelona, was getting to know his fellow Dream Teamers off the court. "Karl Malone for one," said Magic. "We've never been real close, and we spent a lot of time talking."
Malone, an All-Star forward for the Utah Jazz, talked about something else last week—the fears many NBA players had about Magic's decision to return to the league even though he was HIV-positive.
"Just because he came back doesn't mean nothing to me," Malone told Harvey Araton of The New York Times before the Jazz took on the New York Knicks in an Oct. 27 preseason game. "I'm no fan, no cheerleader. It may be good for basketball, but you have to look far beyond that. You have a lot of young men who have a long life ahead of them. The Dream Team was a concept everybody loved. But now we're back to reality."
That is what finally struck Magic squarely in the face. On Monday morning in Los Angeles—five days short of a year since he had delivered the shocking news that he was carrying the AIDS virus and would be retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers, and 34 days since he had said he would return to the Lakers after all—Johnson announced that he would not play this season. He had become increasingly aware that a lot of people in the league were not behind his decision to return. And he was bothered by the specter of players shying away from contact with him and by the possibility that that could affect the outcome of games. Indeed, he had sensed that some of his opponents might not go all out against him during the season. Further, he could not bear the thought that some of the NBA's other stars, like Malone, were among those who didn't want him back. Magic reveled in his relationships with the sport's elite and in the fact that he was the leader of leaders, the Magic Man, co-captain of the Dream Team.
His disappointment must be profound. He not only defined himself first and foremost as a player, but he also felt that he could best carry on the fight against AIDS from the very public forum of NBA arenas. In truth Magic never had as much support among players as he thought he did. Even several members of the Dream learn said things about him behind his back that they would not say to his face. The remarks were not personal insults, but these players did question whether he had the right to jeopardize the health of other players.
The health issue was crystallized for Magic last Friday evening, when his arm was scratched during a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Chapel Hill, N.C. A source close to Johnson says he was unnerved by the sight of photographers scrambling to take a picture of his being ministered to by Laker trainer Gary Vitti. A subsequent wire-service picture of Vitti treating him sent tremors of fear through the league.
The NBA's experts on AIDS have repeatedly put the chances of contracting the disease through an exchange of blood during competition at "infinitesimal" or "next to zero." Some players trusted the league's advisers and went on. Others had doubts but kept quiet. Others, like Malone, had doubts and went public.
Magic's decision (which we must presume to be final) means that he and Larry Bird, who announced his retirement on Aug. 18, will go out together, just as they came into the NBA together, in 1979. Johnson can take comfort in the fact that his stellar performances at the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and in Barcelona proved, as he said on Monday, "that a person with HIV can continue to lead an active, productive life." Nonetheless, there will always be the reality that Magic, the most popular of players, left the game because some people didn't want him around.
End of a Marathon Wait
Patience was the key to winning Sunday's windswept New York City Marathon, and patience is a quality that South Africa's 28-year-old Willie Mtolo, the winner of that race, has in abundance. In the years after international sports federations banned South Africa from most competitions following the 1960 Olympics because of its policy of apartheid, some of the nation's best athletes grew so frustrated with the ostracism that they moved abroad. Among them were Sydney Maree, who became a U.S. citizen, and Zola Budd, who lived for several years in England.
But most, like Mtolo, remained at home and waited. What are minutes to a man who has been waiting years? For most of Sunday's race, Mtolo bided his time, waiting for the rolling hills of Central Park, where strength would tell. Mtolo surged past Andres Espinosa of Mexico on the first hill and ran unpressed to the finish, which he reached in 2:09:29.
Mtolo is determined to take advantage of his status as a national hero to both black and white children in South Africa. Two years ago he launched a kind of one-man integration drive. He brought 100 kids from Durban—virtually all of them white—to spend a weekend on his family farm in Kilimon in the company of local black children. Perhaps the next generation of South African athletes will not have to be quite so patient.
Now that the Associated Press poll will be used by the new bowl coalition to determine some postseason pairings, and because the wire service wanted to hold its electoral college of sportswriters more accountable for their votes, the AP decided this year that the poll should no longer be conducted by secret ballot. When the situation calls for it, the AP reveals which team each of its 62 voters selected as No. 1. The new policy has made a minor celebrity of Corky Simpson of the Tucson Citizen, the only voter who has consistently picked Alabama No. 1 over Miami or Washington, and last week it created major headaches for Dan Raley, an AP voter who covers Washington for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Raley regularly voted the Huskies his No. 1 team. However, after covering Washington's uninspiring 31-7 victory over Pacific on Oct. 24, Raley changed his vote, moving Washington to No. 2 behind Miami. After Raley's switch was made public, he said he hadn't been able to make up his mind, so he flipped a coin. Raley later said he had only been making a "flip comment," but last Saturday, in the final moments of Washington's 41-7 rout of Stanford at Husky Stadium, a number of fans taunted Raley as he made his way through the crowd toward the locker room. And Lincoln Kennedy, the Huskies' normally jovial offensive tackle, said he would never give Raley another interview. Raley was so impressed by Washington's defeat of Stanford—or shaken by the abuse—that he voted the Huskies No. 1 last week, and that is where they finished.
The flap raises interesting questions about the AP poll and the bowl alliance, which was created to increase the chances that a postseason matchup will determine who's No. 1. With bowl pairings based on the final regular-season AP poll, it's conceivable that one writer's vote could determine which team goes where. With millions of dollars and the prestige of a national title at stake, sportswriters should be covering the story, not determining it.
Ticket to Ride
When actress and Northwestern alumna Shelley Long, star of the rollicking sperm-hank comedy Frozen Assets, was unable to fulfill her commitment to be grand marshal of the university's homecoming festivities last weekend, SI senior writer Rick Telander, a former All-Big Ten defensive hack for the Wildcats, was asked to sit in for the traditional convertible ride. He filed the following report.
The weekend began last Thursday night, when I gave a fireside talk at Norris Center, the student union, attempting to explain why someone who has been so critical of big-time college football, as I have, should be anywhere near this celebration. No shots were fired. Coach Gary Barnett sneaked in to listen. Afterward he came up and shook my hand, implying that he didn't hate me.
Observations: There is no fireplace at Norris. The drummer for a band called, I believe, Senseless Mutilation kept tuning his drum as I spoke. This was never explained.
On Friday night I rode in a convertible in the homecoming parade, which proceeded down Sheridan Road and through the campus. Again, no shots were fired, probably because I held my five-year-old daughter, Robin, in front of me as a human shield. At times I raised both arms and made V signs with my fingers, feeling absolutely Nixonian (Richard not Otis). I saw my freshman dorm and remembered for the first time in two decades how much I loved wrestling with my roommate, then scarfing down an entire Spot pizza and two cans of RC Cola while listening to Sgt. Pepper.
After the parade I addressed the students at the pep rally, saying that Michigan State was a "second-rate institution with a second-rate team" that "deserved a beating." Massive crowd roar. As I walked smugly off the stage, I told Barnett, "That was easy." On Saturday, Halloween, I was introduced at halftime of the game. I ran onto the field, waved to the 31,000 people and ran off. Northwestern was ahead 17-10 at the time, and I'll take credit for that. Sadly, the Wildcats lost 27-26 to drop to 2-6 for the season.
Back home that night I wore my letter jacket as I went trick-or-treating with my kids. My costume: broken-hearted alum whose 15 minutes of fame was long gone.
They Said It
Chi Chi Rodriguez, Senior PGA Tour golfer, watching one of John Daly's herculean drives disappear during an exhibition in Florida: "When I was a kid, I didn't go that far on vacation."
Rick Majerus, University of Utah basketball coach: "They talk about the economy this year. Hey, my hairline is in recession, my waistline is in inflation. All together, I'm in a depression."