It was supposed to be a swan song, one of professional sport’s most emotional and riveting moments: the farewell of Magic Johnson from the NBA and perhaps mainstream society after announcing that he had contracted HIV.
Twenty years ago, that is what many believed would happen, that Johnson would disappear from the public eye. Twenty years later, Johnson returns to Orlando, the city that cheered him so vigorously in his final All-Star Game appearance.
He is now a business tycoon who has owned 105 Starbucks franchises and a chain of movie theaters and is spearheading a group seeking to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Johnson has become a megastar off the court, one of the most famous men on Earth, and that 1992 All-Star Game at Orlando Arena was the beginning of the transition from basketball player to social icon. He has had an amazing journey since that stunning announcement in November 1991, making his condition almost an afterthought.
He is a businessman, a vice president of the Lakers, and an NBA commentator, but he will never forget those early days after his announcement when there was so much uncertainty about his life.
Voted to the All-Star Game by fans after his retirement, Johnson returned to the court for that one game and earned the MVP award, with 25 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds. The game turned into his personal showcase.
“I think it had a great impact on the world,’’ Johnson said last week. “Let’s recall all the things that happened. First, the fans voted me in, commissioner [David] Stern allowing me to play, and then there was some uncertainty with players who didn’t know if they could play against me, what will happen, and also people saying, ‘Can he still play?’
“All those things were factors.
“Once the game started, we just started playing basketball. It was fun. It was great, and Dennis Rodman really took it upon himself to show he’s going to body me, he’s going to play hard.’’
There was a group of players who privately expressed concern about playing against Magic because of fear of contracting the virus.
“When I hit those three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, it just showed people, Magic is back, he can play, he’s OK. Yeah, you can play against him, nothing is going to happen,’’ Johnson said.
“I think it did a lot for the world and it did a lot for HIV and AIDS all at the same time. And it did a lot for people who are dealing with anything, not just HIV, but anything else - that they can go on and live a productive life.
“And so the NBA, that All-Star Game in Orlando, educated the world and it was great therapy for me.’’
When Johnson made his announcement in 1991, he appeared to be at peace with it. He was calm during his news conference, never expressing the emotion that many fans and even fellow NBA players - such as Larry Bird - did when they learned of his condition.
And for the past 20 years, Johnson has been assuring us that he’s OK.
“I always wanted to make sure I remained the leader that I was [on the court],’’ he said. “When I had to announce I had HIV, I’m still Earvin Johnson, even though I’m dealing with HIV.
“I’m still that leader. I’m still that positive person. I’m still that person who is the guy that gets everybody going, so I wasn’t going to change.’’
Johnson even returned to the Lakers for a brief stint in 1996, further proof that he felt capable of living a normal life. While many believed he would decline physically following his diagnosis, he took immaculate care of himself and remained healthy enough to withstand a vigorous travel and business schedule.
During his announcement and in that All-Star Game, Johnson convinced us that remorse and sympathy should be replaced by optimism and encouragement.
“I never thought I was going to die, and I thought I would be around for a long time - that’s been my mind-set and attitude,’’ he said. “Besides the medicine, my mind-set and attitude, and also working out, has been the key for me being around for a long time.’’
Johnson has accepted and embraced being the face of HIV, and he has changed the perception of the disease over the past 20 years. That crusade began on a Sunday afternoon in Orlando, when the world was rooting for Magic to just be himself one more time.
“We’ve had the impact that we wanted,’’ he said. “Now the medicine is better, we’ve educated people better.’’
BLAST FROM PAST
Today’s game frosts Iceman
George Gervin is known for the finger roll and for being one of the better scoring guards in the game’s history, behind only Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and perhaps Jerry West. Celtics coach Doc Rivers called Kevin Durant “George Gervin but 5 inches taller,’’ which was a compliment to Gervin, considering Durant’s scoring prowess and versatility.
Gervin shot 84 percent from the free throw line and a blistering 50 percent from the field during his pro years (1972-76 ABA, 1976-86 NBA). He was a solid all-around player - and he doesn’t exactly appreciate the NBA’s current emphasis on athleticism over fundamentals.
“I’m a promoter of skills and fundamentals,’’ Gervin said at the NBA’s Jam Session in Orlando. “But the game went away from the fundamentals and skills aspect and more just athletes dominating the game. Dunking doesn’t necessarily show a skill.
“If you are athletic enough and strong enough and can jump high enough, you can dunk. But can you make a left-hand layup or a right-hand layup or shoot an in-between jumper?
“What do they show mostly on TV? They show the alley-oops, they show the dunk. They don’t necessarily show the fundamental aspect of the game, and I’m not blaming anybody. That’s just what they’re promoting.’’
Gervin said the lack of execution in the finer parts of today’s game gives fans an appreciation of the past, when there was more emphasis on midrange shooting, free throws, and defense.
“It don’t bother me, it just makes a guy like me more prevalent because that’s where I made my living,’’ said Gervin, who averaged at least 25 points a game seven times in his career. “The midrange shot and being able to shoot 80-something percent free throws.
“And I would hope, especially the younger guys coming up understand the value of that midrange jumper.’’
The NBA has fallen short of its professional sports brethren in recording its history. During the lockout, the league’s television network aired replays of games from the 1960s and ’70s that were grainy and difficult to watch.
Gervin played at a time when few games were televised nationally.
“When you don’t know your history, it’s hard to find out where you’re going,’’ he said. “I could stand in the lobby of the hotel and a lot of these young guys will walk by me and not even know who I am. And don’t care.
“I don’t care. I’m part of the game that will never go away. A lot of these guys are just a fad right now because they haven’t really done anything. Got a big contract because the timing was right. But you still got to be consistent every year to be a Hall of Famer or one of the 50 greatest.’’
Gervin was also a marketing pioneer. There is the famous Nike poster with him in a silver sweatsuit (San Antonio Spurs colors) sitting on blocks of ice, leaning on silver, sculpted basketballs. It was the early years of shoe companies marketing their clients.
“People have got to realize that All-Star weekend is really developed from the ABA ownership,’’ he said. “Because the NBA just had an All-Star Game, they didn’t have a celebration like this.
“So you know, I’m a part of that franchise, to really be more innovative to what’s going on today, and a lot of the guys that’s playing the game today don’t know nothing about that. And probably don’t care.
“Their checks [are] coming in every two weeks and they’re out there playing that subpar basketball. That doesn’t excite me. What excites me is consistency and appreciation for the game and the guys that come before them.’’
Westbrook gets the point
The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, who was named to his second All-Star Game, has emerged as one of the league’s most explosive and athletic point guards since being drafted fourth overall in 2008.
Westbrook burned the Celtics for 31 points in Wednesday’s win, as Doc Rivers was unable to keep anybody in front of him consistently.
He could be a model for second-year Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who came out of the University of Texas after his freshman season and was considered an athlete first and basketball player second.
Westbrook was a pure athlete after leaving UCLA following his sophomore season, and while some of his decision-making has been questioned in terms of teammate Kevin Durant, he has emerged as a potential star and been rewarded with a five-year, $80 million contract.
He acknowledges that playing with fury is intentional for him.
“When the game starts, I really don’t have too many friends,’’ he said. “We can chat after the game, but when the game starts, that’s how I was brought up and that’s how I was taught.’’
The Thunder completed the first half of the season tied with the Heat for the NBA’s best record, which is impressive considering Oklahoma City ended last season with Durant and Westbrook apparently at odds over a lack of communication in their Western Conference finals loss to Dallas.
“I think we’ve definitely gotten better,’’ Westbrook said. “We’ve come back this year with a great mind-set defensively, just trying to shut teams down, coming back and trying to win games.’’
Westbrook has been criticized for being a shoot-first point guard who has trouble with distribution. There were times during last year’s playoffs when Westbrook went on scoring binges but ignored Durant and his other teammates.
During Game 2 against Dallas, Westbrook was benched in the fourth quarter by coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder went on to win with Eric Maynor at point guard.
There have been no such issues the past few weeks. Westbrook is averaging a career-high 23.5 points and shooting 47 percent but his assist average has dropped from 8.2 last season to 5.5 this season.
He acknowledges that his biggest quandary is determining when to pass and when to pursue his offense. Westbrook and Durant have turned into the league’s most dynamic 1-2 scoring punch, but there is a fine line between scorer and distributor.
“There’s a happy medium between scoring and passing, and sometimes it’s tough,’’ said Westbrook. “I’m just trying to make the right play. If it’s shooting the ball, passing the ball, the key is just trying to make the right play.’’
Oden brought to his knees
It appears certain that Greg Oden will be an unrestricted free agent this summer after the Trail Blazers revealed that the big man underwent a third microfracture knee surgery. He has had two procedures on his left knee and one on his right. Last Monday, he was supposed to have minor surgery to clear out debris in his left knee, but doctors discovered more extensive damage than initially thought, prompting the microfracture procedure. The team has ruled him out for the season. The Blazers signed him to a one-year, $8.9 million deal, fully expecting him to play this season. That deal was reduced to $1.5 million following the knee issues, and now he may be released once the Blazers officially sign Joel Pryzbilla. Oden has long been on the Celtics’ radar, and they were expected to make a push to sign him in free agency if he played a healthy season. Now he may be available with a minimum deal if he is able to play next season. Oden has played in 82 games in four years.
Goodwin not good enough
Kevin Durant is a free agent - of sorts - after parting ways with his agent, Aaron Goodwin. The separation was unexpected, according to NBA sources, given that Goodwin had gotten a five-year, $85 million deal for the three-time All-Star, plus a lucrative shoe contract with Nike. Durant will be managed for the time being by his brother Tony, a former player at Towson University. Durant is four years from free agency, so Thunder management has some time before questions arise about his long-term future.
Whose move is it?
Thursday is the deadline for the city of Sacramento to cement an arena deal or risk having the Maloof brothers relocate the Kings, perhaps to Anaheim. Commissioner David Stern told reporters last week that there will be no extension and that he is looking to make a determination soon on whether the city will keep the Kings. As for the Hornets, Stern said the league is considering two bidders, both of whom are local. Stern wants to keep the Hornets in New Orleans.
The Celtics are hoping that Brandon Bass exercises the player option on his contract at $4 million, which would be a bargain for his production. Or the Celtics could agree to an extension for Bass, who appears to have found a home in Boston. The contract that may affect matters is Glen Davis’s four-year, $26 million deal with the Magic. Davis has underperformed that contract, and Bass may hold out for something more . . . Rasheed Wallace remains interested in returning to the NBA and reportedly contacted the Lakers about an opportunity. The Lakers have a shaky bench with Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts, and Jason Kapono. The Celtics didn’t bite, even with their lack of depth at center. Wallace was an effective player for Boston down the stretch in 2009-10 but will be remembered most for his exhaustion during Game 7 of the Finals . . . Lakers center Andrew Bynum on Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins: “He’s a good player, definitely coming up. It’s terrible that he has to play in Sacramento when he could take his talents somewhere and probably really help a team. It’s not working out [there].’’