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COMMENTARY : It Will Be Remembered as Year the Magic Stopped

NEWSDAY

The enduring portrait of 1991 is not the frantic look of a placekicker whose last-second attempt to win the Super Bowl failed by, yes, a foot. Nor is it the sight of a skyward long jumper’s leap into history or the improbable streak by a cranky tennis legend whose stay at the U.S. Open was one for the ages -- in this case, 39.

Instead, the most moving vignette involved not a familiar player in uniform, but a magnetic star in trouble. On the afternoon that Magic Johnson revealed he had tested positive for HIV, announced his immediate retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers and became a reluctant spokesman for safe sex, he posed for the picture that was worth a thousand words in nearly every daily newspaper the next day.

In the photograph, Johnson was smiling.

His beaming grin was every bit as surprising as the painful disclosure itself. Johnson’s career was prematurely ended. He was virtually certain to become a victim of AIDS. But standing tall in front of the cameras and a national TV audience, Johnson sounded like a dying Lou Gehrig, in a pinstriped suit instead of just pinstripes.

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And although Johnson did not say he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, he nevertheless put on a brave front. He also vowed to wage a public battle to bring attention to a variety of issues: the need for more AIDS research, the importance of protection during intercourse and, finally, the sexual conduct of athletes -- including his own.

It ranked not only as one of the most remarkable performances of Johnson’s spectacular career, but surely his most memorable. Sadly, an engaging personality and universal popularity made his fate seem all the more shocking. Upon receiving the unexpected news in a telephone conversation, one of the player’s foremost adult fans was reduced to tears.

“Larry cried,” reported Johnson. Indeed, Larry Bird took it hard.

If the story played like a Greek tragedy, it was because Johnson was a happy, admired, beloved figure -- a superhero on the court, neighborly off it. Only a rare athlete could get away with discarding his given name of Earvin for a schoolyard title that smacked of arrogance. But, in truth, Magic was more like it.

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That’s why HIV seemed like Johnson’s kryptonite, spelling not only the end of his storybook romance with the sport, but also threatening his life. Sadder still, it seemed a consequence of the trend of hormones gone wild in the locker room. In fact, drugs, greed and lawlessness in varying degrees were replaced by a new scandal in ’91 -- sex.

While athletes have never been strangers to casual sex, the sordid behavior of boxers and ballplayers finally moved from the gossip columns to the headlines, beginning with fallen heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Already KO’d by former wife Robin Givens’ allegations of abuse, Tyson’s effort to regain his belt from Evander Holyfield was derailed by both a rib injury and an accusation of rape.

In a whirlwind series of events, Tyson was indicted on charges that he raped an 18-year-old beauty contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room; was served with a $100-million lawsuit by the 1990 Miss Black America, who claimed Tyson also molested her, and was described as a “serial buttocks fondler” by the pageant founder, who subsequently recanted his accusation and dropped his own lawsuit against Tyson.

Later, Tyson tore cartilage in his ribs, pulled out of the scheduled November bout with Holyfield and failed in efforts to delay his Jan. 27 trial date on the rape charge.

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Although Tyson insisted, “I’ll be fine,” he will next put on the gloves in an Indiana courtroom, where he faces the toughest fight of his career. A unanimous decision could send Iron Mike behind iron bars for up to 63 years.

Yet, even when formal charges were dropped or never filed, evidence suggested that, at the very least, players may have been guilty of questionable judgment. Philadelphia police concluded that accusations by a fan that she had been raped by Mets pitcher David Cone were unfounded, even as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, according to sources, the woman alleged Cone had issued an invitation to his hotel room, answered the door naked and asked for a massage. Giants outfielder Kevin Mitchell was arrested earlier this month for investigation of rape in California, but charges were subsequently withdrawn. Two days later, Mitchell was traded to the Mariners.

Thank goodness the games retained the spirit and excitement that had been feared lost in an era of disgrace. The Giants, with Jeff Hostetler replacing injured Phil Simms at quarterback, beat the Buffalo Bills, 20-19, in the most thrilling Super Bowl ever when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field-goal attempt with :08 left sailed wide. But Coach Bill Parcells stepped down, Ray Handley took over and the team failed to make the playoffs this season.

No one had more ups and downs than the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, who became the first teams in major-league history to go from worst to first -- from last place to a pennant -- and met in a classic World Series. The Twins’ 1-0, 10-inning victory in a stomach-churning Game 7 was the fifth game decided by one run, the third that went extra innings. Whew!

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That ended an historic season in which Oakland’s Rickey Henderson broke the all-time stolen-base record and balding, 44-year-old Nolan Ryan of Texas hurled his seventh no-hitter. Other developments in the age of age included George Foreman, who gamely battled Holyfield for the heavyweight title before losing a decision in a respectable showing, at 42. Connors, who needed a wild card to get into the U.S. Open, celebrated his 39th birthday by reaching the semifinals, asking: “What the hell is going on here?”

Which is precisely the question tennis officials sought to ask goofy Monica Seles after she skipped Wimbledon with a mysterious injury. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed Madonna won the other three Grand Slam events and soared to the No.1 ranking in about as big a leap as Mike Powell made at the World Championships in Tokyo. His long jump of 29-4 1/2 eclipsed Bob Beamon’s 23-year-old record of 29-2 and ended the 65-meet winning streak of Carl Lewis.

Still, Lewis broke the record for 100 meters with a time of 9.86, then anchored the U.S. 400-meter relay team that set a world record of 37.50. His pace was exceeded only by UNLV, the defending and unbeaten college basketball champions who raced unbeaten all the way to the NCAA semifinals before losing to Duke.

Duke went on to beat Kansas in the title game, 72-65, to become the undisputed champion, a claim Colorado could not make after being chosen The Associated Press’ top college football team earlier in the year. The Buffaloes edged Notre Dame, 10-9, in the Orange Bowl when Rocket Ismail’s last-minute TD on a punt return was called back because of a clipping penalty, but the United Press International voted Georgia Tech No.1 anyway.

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Other big winners included Bobby Bonilla, whose $29-million contract with the Mets is the richest in baseball history; Pat Riley, who left the NBC booth to coach the Knicks for more than $1 million a year; Michael Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA title; Strike the Gold, who won the Kentucky Derby; the Pittsburgh Penguins, who captured the Stanley Cup; John Daly, the ninth alternate, who emerged to win the PGA and endeared himself to galleries everywhere with his prodigious drives, and Rick Mears, who took his fourth Indy 500. And then there was Del Ballard Jr.

Needing only seven pins on his last ball to win a nationally televised bowling tournament in Baltimore, Ballard stepped to the line and promptly rolled one into the gutter. Philosophical, he later said: “People who never knew anything about bowling before have heard of me now. Of course, I’d rather be known for something else.”

But with his winning smile in the face of a bitter defeat, Ballard made everyone who saw him feel appealingly human, mortal, vulnerable. There was only one other athlete who had that effect on us.

That was Magic.

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