Magic's courage applauded

By United Press International  |  Nov. 7, 1991
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The news overwhelmed Michael Jordan and made Charles Barkley shake. The mayor of Los Angeles drew parallels to the impact of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Yet as the basketball and AIDS communities reacted with shock to Earvin 'Magic' Johnson's sudden retirement, what emerged most was a salute to the three-time Most Valuable Player of the NBA for volunteering to become a spokesman for the HIV virus.

'This is something much bigger than basketball,' teammate James Worthy said. 'This is something that's real and it's a numbing feeling. The thing we're concerned with is Earvin and his family and that's where the focus is right now.'

NBA Commissioner David Stern said Johnson 'didn't even have to announce this. He could have done it with a written statement. But he made a public statement and answered questions. He's a courageous person. He admitted he made a mistake and wanted to get the message out. '

Facing a throng of more than 300 media members, Johnson announced his retirement Thursday, one day after learning he had contracted the HIV virus. He had taken an AIDS test as part of taking out a life insurance policy.

'Everyone now knows someboday who is HIV-positive,' said Dr. June Osborn, head of the national Commission on AIDS.

'It's couragous he's moving forward to do this,' said Paul Boneberg, head of San Francisco's Mobilization Against AIDS. 'Magic Johnson may well survive this with the treatments available. It should not be assumed he is on his deathbed.'

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley said he was 'stunned' by news of Johnson's retirement.

'It was like someone hit me in the stomach with a 300-pound hammer,' he said. 'I can relate this only to one other incident in my memory and that was the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

'I find it hard to believe, hard to accept. Magic Johnson has been the most charismatic, most caring and kind sports figure in my lifetime, ' he continued. 'He was never too busy to stop and say hello and shake the hand of a youngster or an adult.'

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a teammate of Johnson for 10 years, was at his side during the press conference.

'(Johnson) tried to stay as positive as he could,' the NBA's all- time leading scorer said. 'He smiled, which is his usual response to everything. He always had the ability to do the right thing under fire. And he will continue to do so on the court of life.'

Michael Jordan, most recognized in the NBA along with Johnson and Boston's Larry Bird, could only say he 'was shocked when I heard (the news). I don't know what to say. I'll have to think about it.'

Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley, scheduled to be a teammate of Johnson and Jordan on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, called the news 'heartbreaking.'

'I have his jersey hanging up in my house,' he said. 'I'm looking at it and I'm shaking a little bit. You never expect it to happen to you. You see it on the news, read it in the papers. But God, I don't even know what to say. It's frightening. You keep saying, unbelievable.

'I don't care about any of that basketball stuff. The Lakers, the Olympics will all go on. But to lose that type of guy ...'

Three of Johnson's former coaches -- Jud Heathcote of Michigan State, Pat Riley of the New York Knicks and formerly the Lakers, and current Los Angeles Coach Mike Dunleavy -- expressed sadness that basketball fans can no longer watch one of the great performers in the sport's history.

'This is a sad day for all of basketball, including Spartan basketball,' Heathcote said. 'I've always said when Earvin retires from the game, he will go down in history as the greatest guard to play the game. That is the case today. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.'

Dunleavy recognized the business impact of this development but put it in perspective.

'We are going to miss him on the floor because he was our leader but our concern is for him as a person, not as a basketball player.'

Riley, who coached the Lakers to five NBA titles in the 1980s, called Johnson the 'ultimate positive example. Now he will fight this disease and he will fight it like he did tonight. We cannot put a cloak over this disease,' he said although Johnson does not show symptoms of AIDS.

'What he needs now is the prayers and support of everyone in his fight against this insidious disease. All he needs is our support andour love. I talked to him. He amazes me. The people who know him and love him are taking it tougher than he is.'

Riley relayed news of Johnson's retirement to fans attending Thursday night's game between the Knicks and Orlando Magic.

Former Lakers great Wilt Chamberlain, in San Francisco to sign copies of his book 'A View From Above,' called Johnson a role model that he hopes can take away the stigma of AIDS.

'Maybe it will bring the proper attention to this disease. Maybe it will make people realize it could happen to anyone,' Chamberlain said. 'He has been a role model, my role model. Sometimes it takes a tragedy like this to happen to us to view it properly. It does not belong to the backstreet or the back alley. It's reached main street.'

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