Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2001 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Lenoard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Watching a 'dying' man live -- IT'S been 10 years since the roof fell in.

Not my personal roof, though it felt like it at the time. No, the roof that fell in belonged to a basketball player named Magic Johnson.

Let me tell you about Magic and me.

I've never been a big sports fan. Never cared much about football or hockey, boxing or baseball. The only reason basketball is an exception is that one day I happened to turn on the television and see this giant man doing impossible things. Spinning and weaving through a forest of outstretched limbs with balletic grace, looking to his left and somehow - "somehow!" - delivering the ball unerringly to a man on his right.

I was hooked. Over the next 12 years, I won and lost a thousand games, stored up a roomful of trophies, vicariously, through him.

I remember, in the spring of '91, I was newly arrived in Miami, staying in this flea-trap motel while I waited for my family to join me from L.A. I had no television in that place, and the NBA Finals were on, so I did the only thing I could. Slipped into the TV critic's office after hours and watched the games. Sat there pulling for my team in the darkness of a near-empty newsroom as the clock ticked past midnight.

Of course, that was the year Michael Jordan's Bulls waxed Magic's Lakers, but we won't talk about that. The one thing that assuaged my disappointment was the certainty that next season, Magic would be back and he'd have a new trick or two and then, boy, Jordan would be in trouble.

But as it turned out that was, for all practical purposes, Magic's last season. The following November, he faced the cameras and announced that he was retiring because he had become infected with HIV.

We all thought he was dead.

Remember? It seems strange now, after a decade in which he has un-retired, re-retired, hosted a god-awful talk show and opened coffee shops in every urban community in America, but that's how we thought then. That he would keel over any second.

My colleague, sports columnist Dan Le Batard, irked some readers - and I was one of them - by describing Johnson in print as "a dying man." I thought it was insensitive. I wanted to think it was inaccurate, too, but I worried that I was only fooling myself.

Eleven years, said Dan. That's how much time "the averages" gave him. Eleven years and he would be gone. So there's still time for Dan to be proven right. But every time you see Magic doing a halftime interview on NBC or clowning around with Leno, looking healthier and happier than anybody else you know, it makes you wonder.

I mean, you don't even think of HIV when you see him anymore. It takes an effort of will to remember that it lurks in him still, could kill him still. If not in the 11th year, maybe in the 13th? Maybe the 15th? Or, maybe 30 years from now, he dies after being run over by a bus.

You don't know. You never know. I think that's the moral of the last decade. That you don't foreclose possibility, you don't give up, you don't stop living. You find a way back.

I remember this one game - 1989 Western Conference semifinals, Lakers vs. Sonics - when Magic's boys were getting their behinds whipped. Down 29 points in the first half. My oldest son was so disgusted he left the room. As he did, the TV camera panned Magic's face. He didn't look panicked and he didn't look distressed. He looked angry.

"Lakers are going to win this game," I called to my son. He thought I was crazy. They won by two.

If you're wary of sports analogies, I don't blame you. Life is not nine innings or four quarters. But there is, just the same, a lesson to be found in an improbable come-from-behind victory. It's the same lesson you find in watching a "dying man" live, 10 years on.

Namely, that there is no such thing as a foregone conclusion.

That's why you put the ball in play.

Comment on JWR contributor Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s column by clicking here.

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