Magic’s story is great now, but wasn’t then

One of the minor effects of Magic Johnson’s revelation that he was HIV positive was that a new term was added to sports writing and we all had to learn how to spell it.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Beginning with Johnson’s announcement that he was retiring on November 7, 1991, I wrote that term many more times than I would have preferred. HIV wasn’t supposed to be part of the sports section. It belonged somewhere else.

Ultimately, however, the intrusion of HIV into basketball proved to be positive in some areas. That was depicted Sunday night in The Announcement, another of ESPN’s fine films on sports culture, which documented Johnson’s very public bout with the virus and how it played a major role in eliminating some of the ignorance surrounding the disease.

At one point during the film, Johnson says that he was both a blessing and a curse in the HIV issue – a blessing because his fame and success in dealing with the condition has helped with advances in the battle to cure AIDS, including raising massive amounts of money for research.

The curse has been that he’s made it look easy and sent a message to young people that HIV can be cured so it’s not that big of a deal.

For me, that contradiction approximates my feelings about the film. Although I spent the decade of the 1980s covering the NBA and had written many stories in the era of Magic, Michael and Larry, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch the film.

It’s too strong to say I thought it might be a blessing and a curse, but as great of an ending as the film would have –Magic is alive – I still remember that Thursday afternoon when I first got a call saying that he was going to retire. That led to a series of calls trying to determine if that was true and why. At the time, most people did not know the difference between HIV and AIDS and the first word was that it was AIDS.

So that meant: Certain death.

That’s not a good memory.

That press conference at the Forum led to a huge day in American sports journalism. The next day, writers from most of the major papers in the country traveled to Los Angeles to cover the story.

We found a dead end.

After his initial press conference, Johnson withdrew from the public scene. My memory is that only one reporter, Roy Johnson of Sports Illustrated, had extended access to him. Lon Rosen, Johnson’s agent, was accessible and pleasant, but he said Magic simply was not going to be available.

So we had to go to others, and that led to many dramatic moments for a number of writers. One of mine occurred when I went to Jerry West’s office in the Forum.

As a kid, West was my favorite player. As an adult, I’d had many dealings with him because I had covered the Mavericks and they’d had several playoff series with the Lakers. Plus the Lakers went to the Finals five times in the ‘80s and were one of the glamour franchises, so I’d written many stories about them and had talked to West many times.

When we got into West’s office, he closed the door, sat down in his chair behind his desk, put his face in both of his enormous hands and began crying.

(To read the original column on Sheridanhoops.com, click here)

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