JOHN RIORDAN: Johnson’s magic extends beyond basketball court

Even the outrageous creativity of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson couldn’t have dreamed up a better start to an NBA career.

The revolutionary point guard went straight from being a national championship winner in 1979 with his home state university, Michigan State, to clinching the professional title with the LA Lakers in 1980, his rookie season.

It was the launching pad for a five-title decade in LA and the happy-go-lucky hero was himself embarking on a personal journey that would make him one of the most popular athletes on the planet. Where better to be a star than in Hollywood? But something else was happening in LA in 1980. Not far from where the magic was happening at The Forum, the Lakers’ Inglewood arena in south-west LA, an oasis of glory in a rundown neighbourhood, the gay community of west LA was under siege from an unknown virus.

Magic Johnson was blissfully unaware that his life would overlap with this slowly developing onslaught just over a decade later.

ESPN Films’ long-awaited Nelson George documentary The Announcement aired in the US on Sunday night, narrated by its courageous protagonist, drawing a clear comparison between his on-court genius and his off-court heroics during and after those dark November days in 1991 when a jaw-dropping press conference gripped a nation.

An American hero was going to die of HIV or AIDS or both. It was all the same in those days. Nobody knew the difference. Very few knew that this wasn’t just a disease suffered by gay men and drug users.

Immediately, he was the subject of less hugs and less high-fives. A cruel twist for a man who wore his heart on his sleeve.

It had been a strange year. Michael Jordan made his breakthrough against a tired Lakers team, helping the Chicago Bulls to clinch their first of six NBA titles under his watch. Johnson, the wrong side of 30, was now officially yesterday’s news. Until, of course, he became the biggest news for the wrong reasons just five months later.

In the midst of everything, he had married his Michigan sweetheart, Earlitha ‘Cookie’ Kelly, that September. To make matters worse, his new wife had told him she was pregnant just days before he was called back from Utah to hear the test results from his doctor — a routine test carried out for insurance purposes and one which saved his life. (Mother and child were, mercifully, not infected). This powerful documentary sees George, a Brooklyn-born writer and director, bring us back to a time when the NBA was enjoying a glorious peak and when fears about the AIDS epidemic were deeper than ever.

After an emotional redemption at the 1992 All-Star game, Magic joins the Olympics-bound Dream Team before subsequently returning to the NBA for a short-lived comeback.

One powerful shot shows Magic in North Carolina being treated for a cut during an exhibition game. Behind him, elbows nudge and worrying stares rain down upon him. Just to prove a point, the team physio treats him without gloves. But it’s too much, too soon. He retires again and begins a new life which has elevated him to business tycoon status.

But possibly the most telling moment is Karl Malone’s honest assessment of his own role in the story. The Utah Jazz icon was the most prominent voice among players who were unwilling to share a court with Magic Johnson after his return to action.

He was being honest, he said. He was a country bumpkin and was reacting exactly how his father would. But when this powerful documentary catches up with him 20 years on, Malone sums up what Magic Johnson did for victims everywhere: “He allowed guys like me to become more educated.”

The Announcement was timed to coincide with the start of ‘March Madness’, the annual national tournament of college basketball which sees 68 teams whittled down to the Final Four over three dramatic weekends of action.

Kentucky are favourites along with teams like Syracuse, North Carolina and the aforementioned alma mater of Magic Johnson, Michigan State, all storied teams from areas of the US where the NBA is barely an afterthought.

Making it this far is a requirement for the bigger universities and potentially worth millions to the smaller institutions. In the former category, there will always be the college hoops kingpins, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. For the week that’s in it, meanwhile, there’s a strange coincidence in the latter category: both the Iona Gaels from just outside New York City and California’s St Mary’s Gaels are making a rare appearance.

Iona were due to play Brigham Young University in a first round clash in Ohio last night in front of President Barack Obama. As good a place as any to start off the St Patrick’s Day festivities in an election year.

john.w.riordan@gmail.com

Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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