In minutes, there would be a basketball game played at Madison Square Garden. It would be a night like any other, wouldn't it? No, this was something different, and the coach of the New York Knicks picked up a microphone and walked to center court.
Games can wait. First, Pat Riley needed to say something about his friend.
"Obviously, there has been some very bad news," Riley said, choking back tears.
For nine years, Riley coached the Lakers and Magic Johnson, but on a Thursday night full of sadness, Riley would be coaching in a league that had suddenly and unexpectedly lost some of its magic.
Johnson announced earlier in the day at the Forum that he has contracted HIV and was retiring from professional basketball. So, in Madison Square Garden, Riley picked up the microphone.
Riley asked everyone in the stands and on the court "in your own voice, in your own beliefs, in your own way" to pray "for Earvin and for the 1 million people who are afflicted with an insidious disease who need our understanding."
Players and coaches from both the Knicks and Orlando Magic bunched close to Riley, who bowed his head and gently recited "The Lord's Prayer."
When the prayer was finished, Riley said softly: "Let's go, let's play."
News of Johnson's illness spread swiftly through the sports world and well beyond, but the reaction was always the same: shock, disbelief, sadness.
Johnson telephoned, among others, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan to share with each the news of his illness before speaking at his news conference.
Bird left the Boston Celtics' practice at Hellenic College without speaking to anyone.
Longtime friend Thomas took the call from Johnson and secluded himself in suburban Detroit.
Thomas later promised to speak with reporters who met him at a Detroit TV studio where he was filming a Christmas special, but he left without talking to the media. However, Thomas' mother, Mary, said she was deeply hurt.
"You have to know that Magic has been like a son to me," she said. "He and Isiah have been the best of friends for years. I pray it's not true. I tried to call Magic's mother, but she's apparently on her way out there now.
"Magic is one of the nicest people you ever want to meet. He's done so much to help people. But that's how it is in this world. Bad things too often happen to good people."
Jordan, who spoke with Johnson before the Chicago Bulls' practice at the Deerfield Multiplex, said he needed time to compose his thoughts. "I can't believe it," he said.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt, joined Johnson at the Forum news conference to make his support known.
"I know what AIDS victims go through, and it isn't a very pretty life . . . derision, bigotry and fear," Abdul-Jabbar said. "If he wants my help, I'll be there."
Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn said Johnson spent an hour before the news conference meeting privately with teammates in the locker room.
"People like Magic come along in the sporting world only once in a lifetime," Hearn said.
"All of a sudden, basketball becomes minuscule. It's nothing. All I think about now is this 19-year-old kid I sat in the office with when he signed out of Michigan State. He never lost any of the charisma or the charm that he displayed that day."
Kevin McHale of the Celtics, who played against Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA finals three times in the 1980s, found the news difficult to comprehend.
"It's really a tragedy," McHale said. "I mean, the guy has not only been such a great player, but he's been such a great ambassador for the game and everything else. I think all you can do now is just pray that he handles everything in the best way that he can."
NBA Commissioner David Stern, who sat on Johnson's left at Thursday's news conference, learned Wednesday night in New York that Johnson might reveal he had contracted HIV. Stern flew to Salt Lake City Thursday morning, then boarded a flight to Los Angeles after he checked with his office and learned that Johnson would announce his retirement.
"Everyone is stunned," Stern said. "Everyone is sad. But everyone understands that if the force of a personality can have an impact in fighting this disease, then Magic Johnson can have that impact."
Former UCLA Coach John Wooden expressed shock at the news of Johnson's illness, although Wooden said he suspected that Johnson may have been suffering from something more serious than what the Lakers announced.
"You knew that when he was missing games, knowing how much that he wanted to play, it seemed to be a little more than the flu," Wooden said. "It's just a complete surprise and shock that something like this could happen to an athlete who seemed to be in such fine condition. But it proves a point, I guess.
"He enjoyed such a long and rewarding NBA career and meant so much to professional basketball, for it come to such an end so quickly, it's simply shocking and surprising," Wooden said.