Commentary : An Old Friend Brings Back a Little Magic
Magic Johnson, who carries around a virus that people only associate with death and dying, makes a choice about the only life he has ever known: He decided to go back to work for the Lakers.
He is a lot smarter about living with HIV than he was four years ago, when he retired. Maybe we all are. If we all knew then what we know now, we would have never lost Johnson from basketball in the first place.
“I’m not mad at anybody except myself,” he said. “I’m not mad at the doctors, or the world. I’ve just been kicking myself for walking away in the first place. I blame myself. The whole time I was away, right up until I signed my contract, I knew I should be playing. That’s what killed me.”
Johnson paused, as if really hearing his words, his choice of words. Johnson did not seem embarrassed, or back away.
“Not playing ball, that’s what was killing me,” he said.
He does not get those four years back. He does not get to be the same person he was before he found out he was HIV-positive because no one does. He does not get to be the same ballplayer. He does not come back as some sort of martyr. Just one of the best ballplayers who ever lived.
One now living with the AIDS virus.
“We’ve all got problems,” Johnson said. “Mine just happens to be different, because I’ve got HIV. Some people have that, some people are handicapped. By coming back to play ball, I’m not saying anything other than this: You got to keep on living. I never wanted to be a hero. What I wanted to do was play ball.”
I asked how nervous he would be at the Forum. Johnson laughed. “My hands are sweating already,” he said. “And I ain’t lyin’.
“I love this game so much. I’ve missed this game so much. I’d sit at home and night and flip around the dial and watch all these games and I’d be calling Lon [Rosen, his agent and friend] and saying, ‘Lon, I got to come back. I got to play.’ Then I’d hang up and say to myself, ‘No, no, no, you’re retired now.’ But you know what? I never really felt retired. And I never said never.”
Rosen put it this way: “You want to know when he really started thinking about coming back to the Lakers? Nov. 7, 1991.” That was the day Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV-positive and retiring. He would play ball for the Dream Team in the Barcelona Olympics after that, and there would be a theatrical appearance at an NBA All-Star game. He came back to the Lakers once before, in preseason, and then left after he suffered a cut in a game and seemed to scare the whole league half to death.
But a couple of weeks ago he started practicing with the Lakers again, and now he is back, at the age of 36. His body is bigger than it was 50 months ago when he left. And he says he is smarter than ever about his body. Again: Maybe we all are. Maybe Magic Johnson has helped make us smarter by just living a life and not a crusade.
“There have been times when people wanted me to be something besides who I am,” Johnson said. “But that can’t ever work with me. People see right through me. There were all these times when I felt like everybody else wanted me to be one thing, and I just wanted to be a ballplayer. And now I’m a ballplayer again. And I’m happy.”
Four years ago, there was a call to him on the road from the doctors, telling him to return to Los Angeles from Salt Lake City, where the Lakers were about to play a preseason game. He flew home and they told him he was HIV-positive. Yesterday, just down the street from the Forum, with a doctor named Lombardo, the physical he took before his return to the Lakers was strictly routine. They were mostly interested in checking Johnson’s knees.
Jerry West, the Lakers general manager, walked into the doctor’s office during the exam and Johnson looked grim and said, “I’ve changed my mind.” Then he started laughing, laughing in a doctor’s office, and soon everyone was laughing.
“I’m at peace,” Johnson said. “That is the main thing. My health is good. My attitude is very, very good, better than it’s ever been. I’m prepared to take what’s going to come. If there’s negativity along the way, I’ll deal with that, too. I’m no different than so many other people. Having this thing has made me strong. Or stronger. And if along the way, if people with this same condition can look out on that court and see me smiling and being so happy playing ball and maybe feel a little better about things themselves, well, all the better.”
Then he talked about watching his friend Michael Jordan come back last season, come out of his own retirement, and a few days later score 55 points against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
“It wasn’t just that Michael scored all those points,” Magic Johnson said. “It was that he looked so happy. You know? He was back in his element. I watched him that night and I knew that was my element too.”
He has returned to his element, a little older, a little wiser, but sounding at the same time like a kid who just found the best playground in the world, the best game. It is not just the Lakers who welcomed back an old friend. We all did.