I would just like to say here and now how stunningly and remarkably stupid I am. Big stupid. Queen Mary stupid. This stupid: I thought this Magic Johnson thing was about basketball, about ego and not being able to accept retirement. Just keep up your vitamins, Magic. Get your rest, put on a nice suit and sit on the end of the bench, like the good, tragic figure you've become, I figured. What do you think Orlando is—Disney World? The Magic Kingdom?
Why would Magic turn himself into everybody's dear Uncle Joe, just back from the hospital? Isn't he getting around well, doesn't he just look wonnnnnderful? I had covered Magic as a writer for the Los Angeles Times, and there were long stretches during which I would be so enthralled with his play, so mesmerized, that I would forget to take notes: the passes that could fit through a shoelace eye; the mincing, sore-feet steps that left large, talented men slapping oxygen molecules; the flat-palmed, flat-footed, one-handed jumpers that barely disturbed the net. He was reinventing the game nightly. Why would he sully those memories now?
Stop playing, Magic, I figured. Forget it. It's too dangerous for you. Too dangerous for those who have to guard you. A mother of one of the other players in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game told me, "If there's any chance he could infect someone, why take the chance at all?"
And throughout the days leading up to Sunday's tip-off in Orlando, nothing changed my mind. Here was Magic, a living, breathing medical oddity; a little piece of doom broken off, wearing sneakers. The whole thing stunk of ceremony and lifetime-achievement-award schmaltz. After Magic was introduced, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas began jogging upcourt to hug him. None of Thomas's East All-Star teammates were coming with him, so he beckoned with a discreet hand for them to follow. They did. And they all hugged Magic, too, even Mark Price of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had said Magic's playing was a mistake because it would put others at risk. Michael Bolton sang the national anthem, and not one of the hundreds of Nikons and minicams pointed toward the voice. They all pointed toward Magic.
The opening tip came to Magic, and his first pass was stolen. When he got the ball back on the West team's third possession, Thomas and the rest of the East starters let him pass through the lane the way we used to do in the driveway when somebody brought his little sister out for a layup. Magic missed it. "Today," he was telling a reverent semicircle of reporters before the game, "we're going to educate everybody." About what? Hubris?
But somewhere between that botched freebie and halftime, I realized I'd forgotten the most basic lesson Magic had always taught us—that he was and is an outright original. Actually I do know when the moment was: early in the second quarter, when the ball was tossed into Magic on the post and he was bumped by the Pistons' Dennis Rodman, a defensive cuss if ever there was one. "I'm going to play you tough on D," Rodman had told Magic before the game. "I'm not going to let you score." Finally, here was somebody sacrilegious enough to swagger up to the guest of honor and make him pony up for the beer just like everybody else.
Magic backed in. Rodman bumped him hard. Magic backed again. Rodman stiffened his body against him. Sweat against sweat. Mean against mean. Again. Back out. Magic tossed the ball to a teammate and asked for it again. He backed harder, harder, then wheeled to the baseline and laid out a baby hook that was a cuticle too long for even Rodman's rubbery arms to slap and just perfect enough to snap the net.
From then on, something changed. Nobody kid-gloved Johnson anymore. All was as it was before, as it was for Magic's 12 remarkable seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers—the vision of him no-looking to the Phoenix Suns' Dan Majerle for a layup; knifing, faking and spinning by the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley for a layin; tip-passing to the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson for a thunder dunk: me forgetting to take notes. Later, somebody would ask him what his favorite part of the game was. "Just being knocked around," he said. Abuse therapy.
And it was while luxuriating in Magic-ness again that the lesson was learned. Sometime in the last two minutes, between the moment Magic took on Michael Jordan one-on-one and the swishfest he put on at the end from the three-point circle. I forgot, just for a second, about somebody on the court having HIV. And that's when I realized it was not about basketball. It was about the patients. It was for every HIV-positive who has locked himself away and comes out only to shop for tombstones. It was for every AIDS patient who has heard the hostess at the dinner party whispering, "Just don't let him kiss the kids."
Now I knew of the educating Magic was talking about. "The players here today helped me educate the people," he said to the press afterward. "And you will help me educate the people tomorrow." Across the way, Magic's mother, Christine, had a calming look on her face. "You don't have to be afraid of him," she said simply.