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.

Ira Berkow of the New York Times wrote:
"Somehow we deserve one more chance to stand and applaud him and all he's stood for." Why?

Michael Madden of the New York Daily News wrote: "`No, No, No, No, No,' my insides wanted to shout. I didn't want to hear a word of this. My heart hadn't stopped pounding from the moment 45 minutes before, my stomach was in knots and my heart was so heavy. No, No, No. My business is stories, but this is one story I don't want to hear." Yes, Michael, and this is one story I don't want to read.

Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News wrote:
"There is a line I read once about Rock Hudson's death from AIDS. I don't remember who wrote it, or where it was, but the line went like this: `Now everybody knows somebody with AIDS.'" Is that so?

Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote:
"AIDS came to our neighborhood today. Yours and mine. It pulled up a chair, sat down in our midst and began shaking hands as if it belonged there, as if it weren't wearing the dark hood and death mask of the grim reaper." How corny can you get?

Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
"You don't say goodbye to Magic Johnson. You say hello to Magic Johnson. Because he will say hello back. Because that is what makes him Magic Johnson. Because he has a hello for everybody." Hello. Hello. Hello. Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

Pat Riley, his old coach, led a prayer in Madison Square Garden in New York:

"Pray for Earvin and for the one million people who are afflicted with an insidious disease who need our understanding," Riley said.

I don't know what Riley was thinking about when he made this judgmental remark, but I'm quite sure they need the help of science a lot more than they need understanding.

To my mind, the only sports columnist I read who attacked the real problem head-on was Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times.

"People looking to make use of this tragedy are hailing Johnson as a spokesman for safe sex, someone to walk inner-city streets and persuade black and Hispanic teenagers, a population at rising risk, to protect themselves. In his announcement, Johnson, recently married with a child on the way, indirectly implied that he had been infected by unprotected heterosexual activity. Sports World embraced the implication and sighed with relief.

" . . . Although Magic is beloved and protected by the news media as, say Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle ever were, there are now too many competitive outlets and ideologies to keep a secret if there is one.

"But the games will go on and Tragic Magic will move further and further from the court. It is a Sports World truism that the sick and injured must be kept out of sight so the warriors will not lose their edge. He will become Earvin again, another former star warning the kids not to do what he did." Lipsyte, who has battled back from cancer, was one of the few writers who viewed the scene dispassionately and spoke with sense.

How much more was there to say? How many times did we have to read that Magic Johnson had received a bad break? How many sportswriters does it take pounding away at their computers hour after hour to turn a tragic story into a revolting episode in excess?

I no longer have to answer those questions. Anyone who read any newspaper in the country last Friday, Saturday or Sunday now has his or her own answer.

For Earvin Johnson, 32, it was the end of his professional basketball career, also a public acknowledgment that he had contracted the deadly HIV virus.

But Magic, after an adulthood shaped and yes, limited, by irrational adulation from all sides, was clearly cushioned from the reality of his situation.

"Because of the HIV virus I have attained," Magic said at his press conference, subconsciously accepting it as another trophy.

I don't think he was in shock. He is a famous man and a truly likable one, but the poor guy simply didn't understand his situation.

Why should he? The parameters of Magic's life have been limited to the dimensions of the nation's basketball courts, which run 94 feet in length and 50 feet wide with baskets at each end that are 10 feet high. That is the area of Magic's expertise.

When he moves beyond that limited space in any city, his naivete becomes obvious. By Magic's own admission, he became just another rich pushover for the bimbos who flock to the sports arenas and to the hotels where basketball players stay on their virtually nonstop trips during the NBA season.

"That's why I am going to be a spokesman for this HIV virus," he said, as though he were discussing still another product line to add to his portfolio.

He has been the spokesman for so many products that it was no wonder he automatically assumed that he was now to be the person chosen to represent all the world's AIDS victims.

For me the tragedy was that Magic didn't and probably still doesn't understand the near hopelessness of his situation. The truth of that press conference was that he has become the emperor with no clothes.

If there is any part of his story that doesn't turn out to be true, we will, of course, eventually find out about it. There are too many people out there waiting for the chance to cash in on Magic's misfortune to keep anything in his past a secret.

There was an inkling of that in a column by Pete Vecsey in USA Today, when he spoke of the habit of players in the NBA to pass around women among themselves and for players to go to bed with more than one of them at a time. What else was the James Worthy story all about?

In Magic's own mind, however, it is still only time to continue smiling and waving at the crowd of sportswriters and move on to the Arsenio Hall Show to yet more applause and adulation.

But what happens when the cheering stops?
The sportswriters could not and did not contain themselves. This was some of the juiciest meat any would ever feed on during their entire careers.

In many ways, their view is every bit as circumscribed as Magic's. Most sportswriters I know rarely read the other sections of the newspaper. They pick up the newspaper and throw the rest away to read their own section. They get the rest of the news like everyone else, from Dan or Tom or Peter.

The smartest people sportswriters get to know are Pat Riley, Jerry Colangelo and yes, Wilt Chamberlain.

In the most poorly timed bit of hucksterism in memory, Chamberlain was on this very day promoting his book in which he boasts of having bedded down 20,000 different women during his professional basketball career.

Magic was leaving the world of the arenas with his most valuable player trophies and his all-time record for most assists. But he was also taking with him one deadly kernel of knowledge.

"Sometimes we think, well, only gay people can get it," he said, "and here I am saying that it can happen to anybody. Even me, Magic Johnson, it could happen to." Not since the murder of President Jack Kennedy, another world-class womanizer, have I seen such nonstop drivel written about a public figure.

I'm quite sure they need the help of science a lot more than they need understanding.

"Because of the HIV virus I have attained," Magic said at his press conference, subconsciously accepting it as another trophy.

Chamberlain was on this very day promoting his book in which he boasts of having bedded down 20,000 different women.


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