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Twenty years on, Magic Johnson goes on living

In this April 6, 2009 file photo, former NBA players Earvin "Magic" Johnson, right, and Larry Bird laugh at a news conference before the championship game between Michigan State and North Carolina at the men's NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament in Detroit. Johnson continues his zest for life 20 years after being diagnosed with HIV. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Paul Sancya/AP

So where were you on the night of Nov. 7, 1991? I was in Madison Square Garden, watching Pat Riley bring his Knicks and the visiting Orlando Magic together to say a pregame prayer for Magic Johnson on the day Johnson revealed that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

That was 20 years ago Monday, and if your first thought is, 'Oh, my, how time flies,' consider the alternative likelihood that Johnson has relished every single day since he looked into television cameras broadcasting live around the world and said, "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today."

Yes, the verb was mangled, but that was part of Johnson's charm, his standing – then and now – as the most positive force of energy to ever hit professional basketball. He was 32 and tried to be upbeat that day, flashing the trademark smile that Johnson's friends and colleagues feared they wouldn't see for long.

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"All of us thought it was a death sentence," Riley said.

That morning, Riley was in his office at the Knicks' Westchester County training base when Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent, called with the news. Riley hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, in disbelief.

Only days earlier, he had received a letter from Johnson, whom he had coached to four championships as part of the Showtime Lakers, wishing him luck as he embarked on his first season with the Knicks. Riley adored Johnson and usually addressed him by his given name, Earvin.

"I just sat there thinking about his life, our 10 years together," Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat, said in a telephone interview. "I felt so sad for him because if you knew him – I mean, really knew him like I knew him – then you understood that he was only about living life."

Riley eventually went out to put his players through a shoot-around before preparing them for what was coming later that day. In all his years around the game, he never heard such unsettling locker room silence.

"It was like they were all in a daze," he said.

Mark Jackson had grown up idolizing Johnson, imitating his flashy passes in New York City gymnasiums and playgrounds on his way to becoming the point guard for St. John's and the Knicks.

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He went home after the shoot-around and got into bed for his customary game-day nap, remembering the balloons Johnson had sent him when he was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery. He cried himself to sleep.

On the telephone from his home in Los Angeles, Jackson recalled that night as "the only time in my life that I was absolutely frozen in a basketball game, not really there." As if to prove it, he thought the Knicks had played the Magic-less Lakers.

No, he was told. It was the Magic.

"That just tells you where my mind was at," he said.

Riley said his decision to speak to the fans before the game and lead the players in a moment of prayer was spontaneous because he knew that many at the Garden were unaware of Johnson's announcement that was made late in the afternoon out West.

"We do not want to eulogize him," Riley said that night. "More than anything now, he needs our love and support."

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But the story quickly became more complex, more accusatory, through a labyrinth of emotions and opinions related to ignorance about the disease and Johnson's sexual habits, among other things.

He was welcomed back to play in the NBA all-star game that winter and for the United States Olympic team the next summer in Barcelona, Spain. Based on those experiences, Johnson announced a comeback for the 1992-93 season but abandoned it after Karl Malone's comments to me for an article in The New York Times unearthed some players' fears of competing against him.

Johnson, in turn, wanted to become a spokesman for HIV awareness but spoke clumsily, saying he had been assured by doctors that all he had to do to survive was to eat well, exercise and maintain a positive attitude. Lost in the message was that Johnson had access to the finest doctors and the expensive cocktail of drugs that have extended his life, unlike millions who didn't and still don't.

"Everyone thought what we were supposed to see was a dark and gloomy guy, but he was just being who he was," Riley said. "None of us can know whether he genuinely believed what he was saying or what his thoughts were when his head hit the pillow at night, but that's how Earvin always looked at things. And if a positive attitude led to a better lifestyle, I have to believe that played a role."

Riley said he would be in Los Angeles on Monday to attend Johnson's news conference at Staples Center to announce new initiatives by his foundation in the fight against HIV. Over time, Johnson fine-tuned his message and has continued to raise awareness and money while also becoming an entrepreneurial liaison between corporate America and the inner city. More recently, he became a grandfather.

But his greatest achievement of all may have been his decision on Nov. 7, 1991, to tell the world what he had and to deal with the fallout while putting a public face on the disease for the past 20 years. And counting.

New York Times News Service

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