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HIV & SPORTS: What Have We Learned? | COMMENTARY

Showtime Becomes Hopetime


Five years have passed, and we should have held our vigil by now.

All of us in the media who were around that day when Magic Johnson stood up, smiled the way he always smiled and told us he had HIV, assumed that the years ahead would bring us to the inevitable.

First we would notice him looking a bit thin, pale. That would be followed by rumors of low CD4 counts and clandestine trips to the hospital. Soon he would drop from sight and, as with Arthur Ashe, we in the media would be the ghouls.

We would be weighing the public's right, and huge appetite, to know about this very public person against the public's disgust at our invasion of this public person's privacy. The public would want to know everything, and then, upon being told, be furious at the messenger of that knowledge.

These would not be days of grace. This never showed up in any of the textbooks for Journalism 101. This would be well beyond who, what, where, when, why and how to "how in heaven's name do we handle this?"

It had happened so fast. And it was all so new.

One moment, the biggest thing going on in the world of sports that day was fabled sportscaster Jim Healy, having his star placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The next moment, there were frantic phone calls, hushed newsroom meetings and the stunning announcement from the Magic man himself.

One of the biggest cities in the world gathered itself around television sets to see, hear and disbelieve. Since then, only the O.J. verdict has taken life in the fast lane and parked it like this.

Magic Johnson, the superstars' superstar, was about to become a fading twinkle. Johnson, who had leaped tall buildings in a single bound for as long as any of us could remember, would soon need all the strength he could muster merely to get in and out of that phone booth.

Before long, our vigil would begin.

Or so we thought.

There is no vigil today, only amazement, not to mention admiration.

Johnson is alive, well and leading the way to a new imagery about HIV and AIDS that says, even though this makes absolutely no sense, that there is hope against this always-fatal disease. For every mind's-eye picture that we have of people with AIDS withering away to a terrible death, we have a picture of a robust, active Johnson.

So now we are confused, but it is a good confusion, much like all of Magic's various comebacks and changes of heart. Will he play again? Will he coach, own? Will he concentrate on his businesses, or will he go off touring with his pickup team? Or will he do both?

He is a whirlwind, and you don't hold vigils for whirlwinds.

So much of this is starting to make sense. Johnson is appointed to the President's Commission to fight AIDS, then is criticized for not doing much and quits the group. Johnson is a jock. Jocks don't sit in boardrooms and chat about policy statements and tone of memos. Jocks go out and jock.

And so he has, playing a little bit, lifting a little bit, coaching a little bit and doing a little bit of business. His days are long, his life is a fastbreak. And his profile remains public. His showtime goes on outside the walls of the Forum. When his picture is in the paper, which is still quite often, it is a picture of a robust man, big and buff and ready to play you three overtimes, if that is what it takes.

And so, that which we know as hopeless doesn't seem to be. Facts, logic, medical science tell us one thing, Magic shows us another.

With the bravado that is so prevalent among athletes, and often so destructive, Magic Johnson is showing us every day that time bombs may tick forever, that reality may be unrealistic, that hope springs eternal, even when there really isn't any.

Five years have passed, and we should have held our vigil by now. But at the moment, it would only be a waste of candles.

Isn't that nice?

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