In minutes, there would be a basketball game played at Madison Square Garden. It would be a night like any other, wouldn’t it? No, this was something different, and the coach of the New York Knicks picked up a microphone and walked to center court.
Games can wait. First, Pat Riley needed to say something about his friend.
“Obviously, there has been some very bad news,” Riley said, choking back tears.
For nine years, Riley coached the Lakers and Magic Johnson, but on a Thursday night full of sadness, Riley would be coaching in a league that had suddenly and unexpectedly lost some of its magic.
Johnson announced earlier in the day at the Forum that he has contracted HIV and was retiring from professional basketball. So, in Madison Square Garden, Riley picked up the microphone.
Riley asked everyone in the stands and on the court “in your own voice, in your own beliefs, in your own way” to pray “for Earvin and for the 1 million people who are afflicted with an insidious disease who need our understanding.”
Players and coaches from both the Knicks and Orlando Magic bunched close to Riley, who bowed his head and gently recited “The Lord’s Prayer.”
When the prayer was finished, Riley said softly: “Let’s go, let’s play.”
News of Johnson’s illness spread swiftly through the sports world and well beyond, but the reaction was always the same: shock, disbelief, sadness.
Johnson telephoned, among others, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan to share with each the news of his illness before speaking at his news conference.
Bird left the Boston Celtics’ practice at Hellenic College without speaking to anyone.
Longtime friend Thomas took the call from Johnson and secluded himself in suburban Detroit.
Thomas later promised to speak with reporters who met him at a Detroit TV studio where he was filming a Christmas special, but he left without talking to the media. However, Thomas’ mother, Mary, said she was deeply hurt.
“You have to know that Magic has been like a son to me,” she said. “He and Isiah have been the best of friends for years. I pray it’s not true. I tried to call Magic’s mother, but she’s apparently on her way out there now.
“Magic is one of the nicest people you ever want to meet. He’s done so much to help people. But that’s how it is in this world. Bad things too often happen to good people.”
Jordan, who spoke with Johnson before the Chicago Bulls’ practice at the Deerfield Multiplex, said he needed time to compose his thoughts. “I can’t believe it,” he said.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt, joined Johnson at the Forum news conference to make his support known.
“I know what AIDS victims go through, and it isn’t a very pretty life . . . derision, bigotry and fear,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “If he wants my help, I’ll be there.”
Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn said Johnson spent an hour before the news conference meeting privately with teammates in the locker room.
“People like Magic come along in the sporting world only once in a lifetime,” Hearn said.
“All of a sudden, basketball becomes minuscule. It’s nothing. All I think about now is this 19-year-old kid I sat in the office with when he signed out of Michigan State. He never lost any of the charisma or the charm that he displayed that day.”
Kevin McHale of the Celtics, who played against Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA finals three times in the 1980s, found the news difficult to comprehend.
“It’s really a tragedy,” McHale said. “I mean, the guy has not only been such a great player, but he’s been such a great ambassador for the game and everything else. I think all you can do now is just pray that he handles everything in the best way that he can.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern, who sat on Johnson’s left at Thursday’s news conference, learned Wednesday night in New York that Johnson might reveal he had contracted HIV. Stern flew to Salt Lake City Thursday morning, then boarded a flight to Los Angeles after he checked with his office and learned that Johnson would announce his retirement.
“Everyone is stunned,” Stern said. “Everyone is sad. But everyone understands that if the force of a personality can have an impact in fighting this disease, then Magic Johnson can have that impact.”
Former UCLA Coach John Wooden expressed shock at the news of Johnson’s illness, although Wooden said he suspected that Johnson may have been suffering from something more serious than what the Lakers announced.
“You knew that when he was missing games, knowing how much that he wanted to play, it seemed to be a little more than the flu,” Wooden said. “It’s just a complete surprise and shock that something like this could happen to an athlete who seemed to be in such fine condition. But it proves a point, I guess.
“He enjoyed such a long and rewarding NBA career and meant so much to professional basketball, for it come to such an end so quickly, it’s simply shocking and surprising,” Wooden said.
Brad Holland, an assistant basketball coach at UCLA, was a rookie with the Lakers in 1979-80, Johnson’s first year in the NBA. “I felt this way when President Kennedy was shot,” Holland said. “I’m not putting Magic in the grave because that’s not the case here, but I just felt such quick remorse. . . . I have no profound words to share. I just really can’t quite believe this is happening.”
USC basketball star Harold Miner was caught totally off guard by the news of Johnson’s illness and retirement.
“You’re talking about probably the greatest player in the game, and this definitely touches me deeply,” Miner said. “This is one of the guys after whom I have patterned my game, and it’s going to take me awhile to get used to him not being in the game.”
Trojan Coach George Raveling said Johnson leaves an indelible mark on the game as well as a rich legacy.
“Magic’s greatest contribution to basketball is that he freed up the mind of every big man who has ever played the game,” Raveling said. “Big men were always discouraged to handle the ball or improve their ballhandling skills. He demonstrated that they can handle the ball. He revolutionized the game.”
Michigan State basketball Coach Jud Heathcote, who recruited Johnson for the East Lansing school, was shocked.
“This is a sad day for all of basketball,” said Heathcote, whose 1979 Spartan team led by Johnson won the NCAA title. “I’ve always said, when Earvin retires from the game, he will go down in history as the greatest guard ever to play the game. That is the case today. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”
Clipper owner Donald T. Sterling expressed his sadness, but otherwise refused to comment.
The Clippers’ general manager, Elgin Baylor, a former Laker star, said Johnson will be sorely missed on the basketball court.
“Magic has made incredible contributions to the game of basketball, (but) my concerns now are for his health and his family,” Baylor said. “The thoughts and prayers of the entire Clippers organization are with him.”
The Rams heard the news moments before they went out for practice, during which they solemnly asked for updates on what he said about his illness. Afterward, players conceded little was accomplished little on the field.
“I heard he said life goes on, and it sounds like he’s in good spirits,” Buford McGee said. “But it’s devastating for us. I think it didn’t hit home when people like Rock Hudson, people like that, had it. Magic Johnson gets it, today it hit home.”
Jim Everett said it seemed so inappropriate that a bigger-than-life athlete such as Johnson could contract such an illness.
“It’s a tragic day for sports,” Everett said. “This is a disease that will attack anybody. I don’t know, it’s hard to even talk about. It’s just a damn shame.”
The Raiders, who were tested for HIV as part of their physical examinations, were surprised and disheartened by the news of Johnson’s illness. Johnson is an avid Raider fan who regularly watches games from the Coliseum sideline.
Marcus Allen, a close friend of Johnson’s, was visibly distraught by the news and refused comment.
Raider owner Al Davis called the news “devastating, just devastating.”
Said Davis: “I’ve always believed a truly great person is one who can inspire in others the will to be great. If ever there was a guy like that, with that classification, the indelible spirit, the fire that burns bright, it was Magic Johnson.”
Roger Craig said he believes that Johnson’s announcement will help educate the public on the importance of safe sex.
“This is just going to be huge, this is going to wake up a lot of people, not just athletes, but people in general,” Craig said. “He’s handling it so well, he’s so positive. Most people would be devastated and breaking up emotionally, but he has so much poise. That’s why people respect him so much.”
After watching Johnson’s televised meeting with the media, Mayor Tom Bradley held a news conference at City Hall.
“It was like someone hit me in the stomach with a 300-pound hammer,” Bradley said. “I can relate this only to one other incident in my memory and that was the news of John F. Kennedy being assassinated.
“Magic Johnson has been the most charismatic, most caring, most kind sports figure I’ve known in my lifetime,” Bradley said. “He has never been too busy to help a good cause, and that’s the legacy he has provided for us and will remain forever.”