It was midafternoon. As usual, CNN was playing in the background. Most of the time, when I'm home, it remains that way. A promo that Larry King's upcoming guest will be Joan Rivers or a reference to Patrick Buchanan is not enough to make me turn up the television sound.

I heard the announcer mention Magic Johnson. There would be a press conference at four o'clock. The Los Angeles Lakers star was retiring from the game.

That was all I heard. I turned up the sound, anticipating more information coming in a little while. That's the way CNN works.

Had Magic hurt his knee again? Had the flu which had kept him out of the first few games turned into something more serious?

The second announcement came a half-hour later. This time, I knew that Magic was in terrible trouble.

Magic, the kid from Michigan State, who startled the basketball world more than a decade ago by besting Larry Bird in probably the greatest individual duel in an NCAA basketball final ever, had tested positive for the HIV virus.

Magic wasn't the only one in trouble, I thought. So are the Lakers. Without him, they are suddenly ordinary. So, too, is Jack Nicholson, the actor. With Magic gone from the L.A. Forum, why would Nicholson any longer need a front-row seat?

So is the NBA, because Magic is still one of three premier crowd-drawing attractions in the game.

Magic was one of the good guys. How would he possibly contract the HIV virus? That is a deliberately naive question. Anyone who has followed the growth of the AIDS epidemic knows it is now all around us. No one is safe from it any longer.

Anyone who reads the New York Times obituaries knows that it has been devastating the national arts community for years. Poets, painters, photographers, actors, dancers, writers . . . all gone. They went to their graves quietly. Their friends were ashamed to speak about their deaths. They knew there was no sympathy for them out there in Reaganland.

Late this summer, I went to the wake of a man who had been my first landlord in Phoenix. We had become friends. He had been a member of a religious community and upon leaving, went to work as a probation officer for Maricopa County.

He was gay. The last year of his life was lived in a mist of terrible pain. They brought him home from the hospital to his tiny house on West Latham Street to die.

When conscious, he was in constant agony. They kept him filled with painkillers. "Mercifully, he didn't even know where he was in the final days," a friend said.

His brother, a Roman Catholic priest, conducted the memorial service. At the wake, his father, a strict and stern Roman Catholic from the old school, was unable to utter a sound. He had lost his son. But he had lost more. He sat quietly in a corner of the small room in which his son died and never spoke to anyone.

The wittiest, most outrageous man I knew in Chicago terrorized bartenders and the pompous people we all knew for years. He went to the hospital for tuberculosis and learned that he had AIDS. He quickly ended his life by leaping from a window.

"Well," people said, "after all, he was gay, you know." When A Chorus Line ran for all those years on Broadway, Michael Bennett was a king of New York City. When he died in Tucson, he was just another gay man whose lifestyle had brought AIDS on.

Did the coverage of Magic Johnson's press conference extend beyond the bounds of both reason and good taste? Of course it did.

But that's the nature of the beast. That's why we both love and despise our newspapers. When they are good, they are marvelous. When they are bad, they are truly embarrassing.

Not since the murder of President Jack Kennedy, another world-class womanizer, have I seen such nonstop drivel written about a public figure.

In three days, more copy was crammed into the dailies about Magic's press conference than about the deaths of Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Eisenhower, and Albert Einstein and Louis Armstrong combined.

The biggest offenders were the biggest names in the business, the most famous sportswriters in the country.

Here's Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times: "Wait a minute, God. Please! Tell us, it's not Magic. There has just been a terrible mistake made here. Magic doesn't deserve this. We don't deserve this." Murray went on to compare Magic to Fred Astaire, Rudolf Nureyev, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Rocky Marciano, Enrico Caruso, Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne. Surprisingly, he missed Cole Porter and Albert Schweitzer on this occasion. I'm sure he'll mention them next time around. He always does.

Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant wrote:
"The world will never be the same." How much do you want to bet?
Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press wrote:

"And as the TV sets flickered on, you could feel America bite its lip . . . There will never be a sadder story." Really.

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