Magic Johnson turned 50 on Friday. It's a surprising number, considering people started writing his obituary on November 7, 1991. That was the day Magic announced his retirement, with the oddly phrased line, "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers."
Magic Johnson's the only athlete I ever idolized, starting from the time I was five years old. My first memory of watching him is of an old news clip that showed him rehabbing from a knee injury he suffered during the 1980-81 season, his second in the NBA. For the next 10 years, I watched every Lakers game that was on CBS, TBS, TNT, and NBC. I'd plead with my parents to let me stay up for the late West Coast games, blackmail them if needed.
I put up Magic Johnson posters. I read every word in Sports Illustrated, bought countless Basketball Digests, Inside Sports, Sport Magazines, Basketball Registers, and NBA Guides. I patterned my own game after him, as much as a small white kid could pattern his game after him (I threw some no-look passes).
I heard about Magic's retirement from my sister, who called me after school and asked if I'd heard about Magic. Um, no. "He's retiring because he has AIDS."
I figured she was joking, but it turned out she was right, at least about the first part, if technically wrong about the second. I watched the press conference and learned he had HIV, not AIDS, a point that meant nothing at the time but obviously meant everything in retrospect. Magic missed the first few games of that season with what the team kept calling a flu-like illness. In reality, they knew the diagnosis but were taking time to confirm it.
And that was the end of Showtime. The Lakers wandered aimlessly through the next few seasons, led by a thirtysomething James Worthy who had the knees of a fiftysomething, the virginal A.C. Green, and the immortal Sedale Threatt, whose greatest claim to fame was that the Bulls got rid of him because his partying was thought to be a bad influence on the young stars of that budding dynasty.
Dynasties always end in basketball. But the superstars who lead them aren't supposed to die as well. And many people figured Magic didn't have much time. When I cried throughout the night he announced his retirement, I'm sure part of it was for an immature reason: the Lakers were no longer going to win titles. But mostly I cried because I figured Magic would be dead within a year or two, five at the most. I didn't know much about HIV and AIDS, but I knew you died if you had either diagnosis.
Now, eighteen years later, Magic is still here, celebrating another birthday. He remains omnipresent, for better or worse. Usually worse. From his foray as a color commentator with NBC in the 1992 Finals, to his short, failed stretch as a Lakers coach in 1994, to his autobiography where he bragged about so many sexual conquests I was convinced Jenna Jameson ghost-wrote it, to his comeback and pushing of a ref in 1996, to his late-night talk show that was so bad it made Chevy Chase look like a combination of Carson and Letterman, to his current stint as a studio analyst for ABC, Magic is everywhere. And he's often ridiculed for his efforts, from media critics and even some out-there Laker fans, who are convinced he's jealous of Kobe Bryant and analyze every statement for signs that he's not worshipful enough of Bryant.
To me none of that matters. I don't care how many ludicrous projects he undertakes or how many times he makes inane points while awkwardly bantering with Stuart Scott and Jon Barry. He could sign up for a reality show with Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt and it still wouldn't bother me.
None of it matters. What matters is that he's still here. Still on TV. Still involved as an owner with the Lakers. Still a businessman.
Still alive. And on November 7, 1991, I didn't think there was anyway possible Magic Johnson would ever make it to 50.
Here's some of my favorite Sports Illustrated stories on Magic over the years.
With the Big Fella out, Magic was the Man
Magic faces the music
The Last Dance?
True Lies (the classic Gary Smith story on Magic's 1996 comeback, his second comeback if you're keeping score, after one in 1992).
And some classic Magic highlights, from his playing days, not his talk show.
Magic's hook shot against the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals was undoubtedly his greatest shot. But this one is my second-favorite, even though it came in a meaningless regular season game against lowly Washington. This is why I always begged my parents to let me stay up late for West Coast games.