- Written by Ken Alpern
08 Nov 2011
ALPERN AT LARGE - Every once awhile, between the local, national and international news stories that show our society is inevitably destined to fall apart, there’s an occasional story that puts everything back into place. The right timing, the right context, and the right combination that reminds us that our troubled past need not condemn us to a hopeless future.
That story, so wonderfully written by Bill Plaschke of the LA Times brings us all back to the day we first heard the big news of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s sudden announcement of his HIV-positive status, and of his immediate retirement. Plaschke also brings us back to the present day, and details all the hurdles that Johnson had to encounter in the days and years since his big announcement.
Among the questions Plaschke raises is where each one of us where during that big announcement twenty years ago. I remember well where I was—I was a dermatology resident at UCI Medical Center, and I remember how Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers created one of the greatest legacies in NBA history, and how it sustained me during my years abroad during my medical training.
Biased though I certainly am, I remain convinced that Magic Johnson was the single greatest player in NBA history—not simply because of his own talents, which ranged from point guard to center (wherever he was needed, he delivered), but because he was able to not only raise his own game but that of his teammates. And in a team sport like basketball, that talent superseded even the great Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, or any of the modern basketball greats.
His no-look passes and his ability to know where each of his team’s players where at all times were the stuff of legends, and absolutely no one had ever seen that sort of uncanny ability before. Of course, it helped to have an amazing wrecking crew of Showtime teammates, which included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis and A.C. Green.
To paraphrase Magic's teammate, all-star forward James Worthy, if you managed to get set with an open shot at the basket when Magic was on the court, you had better be immediately prepared to get the ball passed to you—or you would get a hurled basketball in the side of your head, because Johnson seemingly had extra eyes on the back and sides of his own head and knew exactly where you were at all times.
Johnson came back to the court after his retirement, and even helped the U.S. Olympics team restore their former glory. From donating some his salary to get other players on board the Lakers and under the salary cap, to being a hard-driven coach who followed the equally hard-driven Pat Riley, Earvin Johnson stayed true to his family’s blue-collar roots and stuck to one overarching rule: work hard, and don’t stop working hard, until you WIN.
And I don’t mean a psychological, trickster-style “winning” coined by infamous celebrity du jour Charlie Sheen. I mean the type of winning that makes everyone know you beat the other side fair and square.
So it should come as no surprise that Magic Johnson is just as successful a businessman as he was a basketball player, and even now (as then) he does so with a charismatic grin that makes it hard to ever disagree with him.
Kind of makes one wonder why Magic hasn’t run for political office, but considering how so many in our society demand that “other” people work hard for their own benefit, perhaps his message wouldn’t resonate as it would in other eras, when “we were all in this together”.
Which is a shame, because if Magic never stopped his forward momentum, and never got caught up in self-pity after his diagnosis of being HIV positive, then it would behoove us to do the same. Yes, our city, state, nation and planet are all seemingly in worlds of hurt, but courage, flexibility and work ethic can and should be able to pull us all to prosperity and happiness in the same way it allowed Magic Johnson to overcome his adversities.
Much has evolved in the past twenty years, and with the advent of “HIV cocktails” the diagnosis of being HIV positive need not be a death sentence … although the ability of the HIV virus to mutate and prevent the development of a vaccine means that our society’s “cure” for HIV is put the virus to sleep forever by keeping it suppressed with medications. Stop taking these meds (for which the right combination differs in every patient), and the virus roars back to life within days to weeks.
But we have evolved as well, and have acknowledged HIV-positive patients, regardless of who they are and how they got the virus, as our beloved and cherished friends and neighbors, our heroes and our role models, and our own extended family.
And Magic Johnson still remains one of my own personal heroes, a man who has decidedly conquered the great challenge that every athlete faces—which is whether their mind and skill set extends beyond the athletic arena of youth and into the greater world of professionalism, business and civic activism that defines the longer span of a person’s life.
Other basketball greats like Kevin Johnson and Bill Bradley have done the same, and an interesting accompanying story describes the life of Laker great Pau Gasol, who was influenced both to basketball and to medicine by Magic Johnson. Not to worry, Mr. Gasol, you’re easily young enough to go into medicine after basketball isn’t your day job anymore.
And as we march through the eras of our own lives, it’s really up to each of us to make the most of what we’ve been given by our Maker, and choose to either wallow in self-pity as to what could have been, or should have been, or choose to fight and strive for what we want to be.
I’ve seen grassroots activism create some amazing things, and the power of one still shines strong in the City of the Angels despite the power of entrenched forces in the business world and City Hall to “convince” us things just can’t be changed for the better.
No wonder Earvin Johnson chose to stay in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. And lucky for us, there’s still Magic in this town.
Tags: Ervin Johnson, Magic Johnson, Los Angeles, Lakers, Pau Gasol, James Worthy, HIV, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird
Vol 9 Issue 89
Pub: Nov 8, 2011