By Lyle Spencer
Twenty years ago, a phone call from a Lakers public relations staffer jolted me awake in my Temecula, Calif., home.
“You need to get to the Forum as soon as possible for a press conference,” the voice said. “It’s important. It’s about Magic, and that’s all I can tell you.”
I was still getting acclimated at a new job, as the lead sports columnist at the Riverside (Calif.) Press Enterprise. I’d been hired in August after The National Sports Daily, a wonderful but ill-fated publication, folded. I’d lived on the East Coast for seven years, having departed for the New York Post in 1985. What I left behind was a life on the beat of the greatest team ever assembled, in my view, the Los Angeles “Showtime” Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Now I was back in Southern California, and something was going on with Magic.
This was well before Twitter and the social media, so whatever rumors were rumbling out there were not in my mind as I made the 90-minute drive to Inglewood. I recall stopping close to the Forum to buy a notepad, having left home in such a hurry I neglected to bring one.
Pulling into the Forum parking lot, I made the familiar walk, swiftly, to the Forum Club, where the press conference was to be staged. I had been there so many times during the early glory days of that Magical collection of athletes, often in the company of Chick Hearn, one of the best and funniest people I’d ever been around. It was a place that stirred so many great memories, but now . . . what was this all about?
As I walked into the Forum Club, I immediately encountered several old road buddies: Kurt Rambis, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott. Their expressions told me this wasn’t going to be a good day. I asked what was going on, and Coop – one of Magic’s best buds – said he couldn’t tell me, but I’d soon find out.
A few minutes later, amid a sea of cameras and microphones set up around a podium, Earvin “Magic” Johnson walked in with his wife, Cookie, and an assortment of familiar NBA figures dressed in suits and wearing very serious expressions.
It’s all a haze from that point forward. I was standing alongside Cooper, Scott, Rambis and Mitch Kupchak, off to the left of the podium, when Magic stepped up and made the announcement that rocked the world.
These unforgettable words – “I have attained the HIV virus . . . and will have to retire from the Lakers” – drew audible gasps in the room. I saw tears rolling down the faces of athletes who’d played and worked alongside the greatest basketball player I’d ever known. It hit me with a numbing force.
Going instinctively into professional mode, I made the rounds, doing interviews, scribbling barely legible notes. I talked with everyone I could, getting reactions. There was a general sense of disbelief – and, no other way to put it, doom.
At that relatively early stage, HIV, bottom line, meant one thing: death. There was no getting around it. Magic was not going to be with us forever, and that was impossible to process in the moment.
Here’s a guy who’d always been the life of every room he ever entered, a man who defined charisma. I’d spent hours with him, talking about everything under the sun on flights, in airport terminals, on buses, in the dressing room. He was the most accessible superstar I’ve ever been around.
And now this
How do you put into words what all of this meant?
Magic had put up a brave front, predictably. He kept saying he would “live on,” that he would meet this challenge the way he had confronted all others, head on, determined to prevail. He’d always been able to impose his enormous will to make great things happen, and he was saying he would carry that same frame of mind into this uncertain new world he would inhabit.
Shaken and disoriented, I listened and wanted to believe he knew something no one else seemed to know: that it was indeed possible to live on, productively and happily, with a death sentence hanging over one’s head.
But how could I truly believe it? There was little evidence at the time to support his faith.
About an hour after Magic’s press conference, having filled the notepad, I made the trek home, still dazed and bewildered.
I wrote a column, expressing my admiration for the man I’d come to know so well in our time together, hoping that he would, indeed, show the skeptical world that he could beat the longest of odds and live on, spreading the message.
A few months later, Magic made his formal farewell address at the Forum on a Sunday at halftime of a Lakers-Celtics game. It was an amazing impromptu speech, from the heart, no notes. He mentioned me, and I recall tears welling up as I watched from the old press box at midcourt, relieved that the lights were off and no one could see me.
Earlier that day, I had a long talk with Larry Bird in the visitors’ dressing room. Larry and Magic had been inseparably linked since college, establishing a rivalry matched only by Ali and Frazier in my career span. Now here was Bird, unable to play but also unable to stay home and miss Magic’s address, brushing aside tears as he told me how this had impacted him.
Honest as ever, he sat on a trunk in the cramped dressing room and told me how devastated he was, that his life somehow would never be quite the same. Intense rivals had become close friends. Magic had drawn out a shy, sometimes belligerent Larry, touching him with his light as they were lifting each other to awe-inspiring heights on the court.
I recall something I wrote in 1983 when I worked for the long gone L.A. Herald Examiner, covering the Lakers. I’d interviewed the famed astrologist, Joyce Jillson, at her home, having asked her to do a chart on Magic heading into the playoffs.
She told me something I could not have expected, something I’d never forget.
“As great as he is in his professional life,” Jillson said, giving me the focus of my piece, “there’s something in his chart telling me that he will do something well beyond basketball, something that will change the world in some way. He is destined for something extraordinary in his life.”
As I see him today, interviewed on the 20th anniversary of his heart-wrenching announcement, I understand what Joyce saw in his chart.
Magic has changed the world in an important way.
He has lived on, teaching the planet about the affliction, representing hope to millions across the globe. He is aware enough to realize that this is an ongoing crisis, one requiring full-fledged commitment, and he welcomes the role he continues to play.
He remains very much alive and as charismatic as he was as a rookie in 1979-80, driving the Lakers to improbable heights and sustaining a level of excellence as a leader unmatched in his sport.
There never has been anyone in my lifetime quite like the Magic man. I’m as proud as ever to think of him as a friend, someone who touched me so many years ago and continues to move me.
In a world where darkness and light are in conflict, he remains a beacon, leading and driving his team.