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November 28, 2011

Magic, Hope, and Inspiration

Given our societal fascination with commemorating even the most mundane pop cultural milestones, I was surprised when a fairly significant anniversary passed with relatively little fanfare earlier this month - especially when you consider that pretty much nobody thought we’d ever see it.

This past November 7th marked 20 years to the day that Earvin “Magic" Johnson announced his retirement from professional basketball. It was a day that many sports fans – especially those, like me, who lived in Los Angeles – remember in the same way we do the Challenger explosion or even September 11th. Yes, that seems like hyperbole – but for perhaps tens of thousands of people, it was one of the most horrible things we could imagine, happening to one of our favorite people in the world.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson; photo from SI.com

I’ve referenced several times before that I was your typical jock kid growing up. I was a Southern California dreamer who bled Dodger blue and Laker purple (as well as Ram navy and gold, but that’s a separate tale of heartbreak), and for more than a few years, my life’s ultimate ambition was to play professional basketball for my hometown Lakers. Eventually my own hoop dreams died out, but my favorite team always owned a piece of my heart – and when I was a college-aged sports junkie watching the Showtime Lakers and playing pickup hoops at every possible opportunity, Magic Johnson was definitely the coolest guy on the entire planet. (And this is without even mentioning the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote a badass song about him.)

So as corny as it sounds, Magic was the first person I really "cared" about who got HIV. I never met him personally, and didn’t know anything about him besides what I saw on TV and in magazines … but I distinctly remember being absolutely heartbroken when I watched him on November 7, 1991.

November 7, 1991; screengrab from this video

We knew so little about AIDS back then, and the small amount of information we did understand was simply terrifying. The fatality rate was seemingly 100%, and it usually happened in agonizing fashion. Death was going to be inevitable and merciless, and one of the biggest heroes of my youth would be reduced to a wasted shell of his former self before finally succumbing. Watching his press conference, I thought to myself, Oh God, he's going to die now. I don’t want to watch him die.

Of course, Magic Johnson didn’t die – not that year, or the next, or the one after that, or any of the twenty years since making his announcement that stunned the sports world. He’s gone on to have a long, healthy, enormously successful life by any measure - just as he told us he would in 1991, when virtually nobody in the room or watching on TV believed him.  Rather than becoming a high-profile victim of AIDS, he became a symbol of hope that the disease didn't have to be an automatic death sentence.

In the meantime, I’ve grown twenty years older as well; I no longer bleed for the Lakers or get emotionally attached to athletic heroes, and I realize that life throws us all manner of awful hardships, usually for reasons that don’t make any sense whatsoever. And the Magic Johnson announcement doesn’t have nearly the same significance to me anymore, and probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning here ... except that it also played a decisive role in the life of somebody else who I’ve come to see as a true inspiration. Somebody who I wouldn’t know if not for my running (and blogging) exploits, and somebody who I’m enormously proud to call a fellow runner.

It’s somebody whose story I’ll tell in my next couple of posts, to coincide with another significant cultural anniversary later this week. Hopefully you’ll be inspired as well – but if not, it’s certainly the fault of the teller, not of the subject.

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migangelo 11/29/11, 6:18 AM  

i remember i was driving down the road in front of McDonalds when it was announced on the radio. i was not a huge sports fan but definitely cheered for the Lakers and i was crushed. i don't care for bball at all now and could care less about this season that almost wasn't. there are certain players though whose presence extends beyond their sport and his was, and still is one.

Anonymous,  11/29/11, 8:56 AM  

Does compassion come from running or do compassionate people run? Running distance acquaints us with pain and suffering and the environment and with spirituality (of all variety). And those 'visits' with ourselves help us identify with others that suffer and struggle with other afflictions. Your post brings back memories from not 20 years ago, but 15 years prior. That's when my brother died a horrible death from AIDS. When Magic made his announcement I was not a basketball fan, but became an admirer of Magic.

Gretchen 11/29/11, 2:43 PM  

Loved Magic, loved the Lakers. (And, yeah, for a long time I rooted for any team that played against the Rams just out of bitterness, but you're right, that's a separate story.)

Way to hook your readers with a personal, relatable anecdote, then leave us wanting more. Plus, who could pass up reading a post with a title like that? You're quite the storyteller. Looking forward to the coming installments.

drunkmonckey 11/30/11, 6:28 PM  

There is no doubt that he has done a large part of bringing recognition and funding to the disease. BUT, let's not forget that he acquired the disease by repeatedly cheating on his wife. It is saddening that we so easily ignore and forgive the bad because someone can score points.

Donald 11/30/11, 10:31 PM  

monckey: absolutely correct. That's one of many reasons I don't idolize athletes anymore. Kids have a harder time seeing beyond the star factor, though.

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