I have touched the highest point
of my greatness;
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall
Like a Bright exhalation
in the evening,
And no man see me more.

Shakespeare, Henry VIII

For great professional athletes, the last act is the most difficult to perform with grace. It requires not only magnificent skills and consummate artistry but perfect timing. Luck is essential.

Few great athletes succeed in making a dramatic and memorable farewell. Pete Rose's finale ended in distasteful scandal. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went from city to city collecting gifts in a series of joyless and ever more embarrassing farewell ceremonies.

To my mind, only Ted Williams and, now, Magic Johnson, said goodbye with style and grace. Each succeeded in exiting the stage following an exciting performance that demonstrated their skills and encapsulated the personal styles that marked their entire professional careers.

It is more than 30 years since Williams, the Splendid Splinter, played his final game for the Boston Red Sox. In his last at-bat, Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, stroked a home run. The man and this final act have become legend.

Here is how John Updike described those final moments on September 28, 1960, in Fenway Park for the New

Yorker magazine, in a piece called "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. ... The ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs-hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept and chanted, "We Want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back.

Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable.

The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters.

This past Sunday, Earvin Johnson, better known to basketball fans around the world as "Magic," gave what we assume was his final curtain call as an NBA player.

Cheers swept the arena during the pregame ceremonies in Orlando, Florida, at the annual All-Star Game. Fittingly, Magic was the last player to be introduced.

There was that familiar Magic smile-seen so often during his years with the Los Angeles Lakers-with the warm, bright eyes and the big mouth full of strong white teeth. At first, he looked up at the crowd as if expecting the cheering to stop quickly.

But it didn't. The sound rolled on. Magic was clearly moved by it. Swallowing hard, he went down the line of his teammates, shaking hands.

Then, while the crowd continued to roar its admiration and farewell, something unpredictable happened.

Isiah Thomas, a longtime friend and rival from the Detroit Pistons, stepped from the opposing, East All-Star line. First, Thomas, almost a foot shorter, kissed Magic on the cheek and then hugged him. It was a repeat of a ceremony Thomas had performed many times when the two met to play in crucial games over their careers.

The other players from the East team stepped forward to hug Magic, too.
The importance of this symbolic act by Thomas and the East players should not be minimized. There had been talk that many of the players were afraid to touch Magic for fear they might contract AIDS. This was their way of showing that they had no such fears.

There is so much hype in professional sports these days that we've become jaded. But this spontaneous greeting for Magic by the rest of the NBA All-Stars was real. An onlooker would have to be made of stone not to feel a shiver down his spine as he watched this genuine outpouring of emotion.

During the first week of the season, Magic announced in a nationally televised press conference that he had tested positive for the HIV virus. Magic pointed out that he didn't have AIDS yet. But his doctors had advised him against trying to play professional basketball anymore.

"Sometimes we think only gay people can get it," he said that day. "Here I am, saying that it can happen to anybody. Even me, Magic Johnson."

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Tom Fitzpatrick