By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

I'm almost afraid to write this column. Should I even waste my time? Has Magic really retired? Is he definitely not making another comeback? Are we sure that he won't walk up to the podium Friday night in Springfield, Mass., gaze out at thousands of adoring fans, then suddenly say, "Man, I miss this ... screw it, somebody find my Lakers jersey!"

Larry Bird & Magic Johnson
The Basketball Jesus & Magic -- nobody did it better (except for the shorts).

You can't rule anything out with him. As we learned over the past decade, the big picture never really mattered with Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He tasted the good life for 15 years, had the magic carpet pulled out from underneath him, then spent the next decade desperately angling to remain in the public eye. He went from "Hall of Fame" to "Hall of Shame" within a decade. And nobody seemed to care.

Here was one of the most memorable athletes of his generation, somebody who wouldn't have been forgotten if he moved to Antarctica ... and he couldn't fade into the sunset. Couldn't let go. Couldn't step away. On a much grander scale, Magic was like Matthew McConaughey's character in "Dazed and Confused," the former high school stud who couldn't move on after graduation and walk away from the best years of his life, so he just kept hanging around, going to parties and pretending he was still in school. And the years passed, and the years passed ... and ... wait a second ... they're still here? That was Magic.

And it shouldn't have been that way. I loved Magic. Rooted against him, spent every waking moment as a Celtics fan hoping he would fail, argued until my face was blue that Larry Bird was better ... but respected him every step of the way. When basketball is played the right way, with the best player playing unselfishly and always looking to make the extra pass, eventually there's a domino effect on the rest of the team -- soon, everyone tries to make the extra pass, and even better, they start seeing angles that they would never ordinarily see.

Magic Johnson & Arsenio Hall
Magic appeared on Arsenio Hall's show shortly after he announced he was HIV positive.

Here's the point: Only two players from the past 40 years enjoyed such a dramatic effect on their teammates ... Bird and Magic. Maybe MJ was the greatest individual player ever, but he never brought his teammates to a higher level like they did. If you loved basketball -- if you truly loved it -- you loved them both, and you realized what was happening, and you savored every season with them, every game, every play, every moment. That's just the way it was. They brought the game to a better place.

So when Magic revealed his HIV status and abruptly retired in 1991, I remember feeling like a family member had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I thought Magic was going to die. Everyone did. When my college girlfriend called to tell me the news, I actually felt my knees go weak. Magic is gonna die. Magic is gonna die.

When you think about it, maybe part of Magic did die that day. Magic made his bones in Hollywood, the city of stars, where the parties never ended and women never said no. He was just as famous as Murphy, Nicholson and everyone else, collecting five NBA titles and two MVP awards, filming numerous commercials, helping to save the NBA, personifying the phrase "showtime," on the court and off. You always hear the phrase "larger than life," but in Magic's case, he really was.

Magic Johnson
After winning gold in Barcelona, Magic was bit by the Glory Bug.

As Charlie Pierce first pointed out in GQ Magazine, the HIV saga introduced us to Magic's alter-ego, "Earvin," with whom he had been battling for years (like Superman and Bizarro Superman). Earvin dated a Michigan girl named Cookie for more than a decade, but Magic cheated on her relentlessly. Earvin had an illegitimate son in Michigan from another woman, but Magic carried on like the boy didn't exist. Earvin was a shrewd investor who tripled his NBA income off the court, but Magic carried on like a college kid on spring break. Even after he acquired HIV, Earvin educated everyone about his virus, but Magic bragged about his earlier, wilder ways and seemed more concerned about convincing everyone that he wasn't bisexual.

It was difficult to watch, especially as he struggled to leave basketball behind. He returned to capture the 1992 All-Star Game MVP, a contrived event where everyone was afraid to guard him. From there, he went to Barcelona for the '92 Olympics; nobody fussed about Magic being involved, only because none of the other countries planned on playing defense (the Dream Team was too damned good, so why even bother?). That should have been the perfect swan song for Magic -- him and Larry joining forces with MJ's generation, one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that could never be repeated or duplicated. Good times.

A little too good, actually.

Magic Johnson
You could hear a pin drop when Magic scraped his arm.

Because Magic couldn't let go. He launched an NBA comeback before the '93 season, painfully exposing everyone's collective fears and prejudices towards the HIV virus. After opponents grumbled about playing against him, there was a surreal moment in the final Lakers exhibition game, when Magic's arm was scratched by an opposing player. The crowd hushed. His teammates were looking at him like he was a leper. Even the trainer looked nervous as he treated the wound. And right there, everyone realized that this couldn't work, not yet. Magic's illness had transcended the game. He quit. Again.

So here's Magic ...

Hey, wait a second... where did everyone go?

... leading him to TV.

And here the wheels came off. Magic released an autobiography, colored with tales about his (VERY HETERO!!!!!!) sexual escapades, then shamelessly plowed through the talk show circuit. Did we really need to know about his elevator trysts, or his six-person orgies, or his bizarre philosophy about cheating on longtime girlfriend Cookie (as long as his one-night stand didn't share his bed all night, it was somehow okay)? Wasn't this crossing the line? Was Magic really educating America's youth about the HIV virus, or was he simply trying to affirm and re-affirm his heterosexuality? It wasn't his best hour.

Magic Johnson
"My Life" -- aka "I AM VERY HETEROSEXUAL!!!"

Undaunted, NBC eagerly snapped him up, naturally assuming that the personable Magic would thrive as a broadcaster. Nope. He was a car wreck. Within a year, they tossed him into a three-man booth with the brilliant Marv Albert/Mike Fratello combination, which (at the time) was the equivalent of Fox throwing in Nipsy Russell with Pat Summerall and John Madden for NFL games.

Hey, we all know what a three-man booth usually means: "We made a mistake hiring this schmuck, so we'll throw him into a three-man booth and hopefully he won't make too much of an ass out of himself." But Magic took it to the next level. There was something perversely entertaining about listening to him, the same way it's entertaining when you see a pedestrian trip on the sidewalk, or a college buddy puke all over himself. Magic inexplicably giggled during plays, he consistently interrupted Albert and Fratello, he tied everything into something that happened during his Lakers career ... and half the time, you couldn't even understand what he was saying.

(Catch some of his work on ESPN Classic some time -- it's like a two-hour "SNL" skit. With one minute left in a typical Bulls-Knicks game, the Knicks will take the lead on a Ewing shot, and then MJ will answer with a basket, and then Magic will scream something like, "Patrick was down on his end sayin' I'M GONNA WIN THIS GAME and Michael came back down and said UH-UH BIG FELLA YOU AIN'T WINNIN' ON MY COURT, BABY!!!!!" You can't even believe it's happening.)

SPORTS GUY'S NFL PICKS
Buffalo (-3) over Chicago: Team Frisky against The Year After Team.

Seattle (-3) over Minnesota: I mean... did you SEE that Randy Moss interview yesterday? That was the most emotional TV event since Angie Everhart was set on fire. And yes, Randy has officially entered the "Ewing Theory Potential" realm.

Philly (-19½) over Houston: They can't make this line high enough.

Denver (-7) at Baltimore: Could somebody introduce Brian Griese and Tara Reid, please?

(Last week: 4-0. Overall: 7-3.)

Anyway, NBC slowly phased him out ... and that's when we realized that he wasn't going away quietly. He improbably returned to coach the Lakers, resigning in frustration after 16 games because he couldn't reach the younger players. He toured with an exhibition hoops team across Europe, which was the equivalent of U2's Bono spending a winter singing kareoke at Irish bars. He diligently made the talk show rounds, seemingly more available than Richard Lewis and Teri Garr combined. In the summer of '95, after Jordan's grand comeback, Magic appeared on NBC's "Dateline," announced his intentions for another NBA return, then volunteered his services for the '96 Olympic team.

And here's where it became awkward. Nobody really cared.

He was yesterday's news. That didn't stop him. He returned to the Lakers during the '96 season -- looking big and bulky, playing power forward -- and it was fun for about three seconds. Even if the other players finally accepted him (an underrated milestone for the acceptance of HIV in this country), it didn't change the fact that you just felt sorry watching him. It was like Chris Rock's routine about "You never want to be the guy who's just a little too old to be in the club." That was Magic.

Magic Johnson
After leaving the NBA, Magic never met a team he didn't like.

He played 32 games in all, stepping aside after the season. We were supposed to take solace in the fact that, four years ago, those 32 games never could have happened (because of the prejudices against HIV). You don't remember this now; all you remember is Magic laboring to get up and down the court. But the aborted comeback spawned something far more horrifying ... once again, Earvin remembered how much he enjoyed being Magic. So he created a syndicated talk show for himself -- "The Magic Hour" -- hoping to revive Arsenio Hall's successful tactic of "Friendly celebrity brings on other celebrities, makes them feel comfortable, kisses some butt, and everyone has fun!"

Hey, maybe it would have even worked ... if Magic Johnson was remotely capable of running his own show. Personally, I was devastated when they cancelled it after a few months -- this might have been the only show that shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale -- and if they don't release a "Best Of" DVD soon, I'm going to take everyone at my local Blockbuster hostage. You know how Magic always does his "There will never, ever, EVER be another Larry Bird" routine? Well, trust me... there will never, ever, EVER be another TV event like "The Magic Hour".

It was literally indescribable. The lowlight happened when Howard Stern appeared as a guest, farting out the song "Wipeout" (yes, you read that correctly) and making every inappropriate Magic-related joke possible. Desperate to stem a ratings slide, an overmatched Magic had to sit there, smile thinly and absorb the abuse. I can't remember a time when another celebrity was humiliated that publicly, and for that long; I wish I could block it out of my mind (it was like flipping channels and accidentally coming across a televised vasectomy surgery). Needless to say, the show capsized within eight weeks, costing syndicators more than $10 million.

Magic Johnson
Test patterns in Sri Lanka got better ratings than "The Magic Hour".

No matter. Over these last few years, Magic always found ways to stay in the limelight. You couldn't watch a Lakers home game on NBC without the obligatory Magic interview. During every Lakers title celebration, Magic always stuck himself in the middle of things, like Don King after a heavyweight title fight. He boasted about beating HIV, claiming that practically all traces of the virus had been wiped from his body (almost sounding like David Blaine). When the NBA launched a coed three-on-three celebrity game during All-Star Weekend, a heavier Magic unbelievably showed up, playing with the likes of Justin Timberlake and Lisa Leslie. As you watched him, you couldn't help but think to yourself, "Larry never would have played in this game."

And sure, it hasn't been all bad. Magic evolved into a visionary businessman, even opening a chain of movie theaters that became a roaring success on the West Coast. He improved his TV skills dramatically, acquitting himself well enough on TNT's halftime show -- even sticking it to Kenny and Chuck a few times -- that they invited him back in a permanent role next season. He still spends much of his spare time educating people around the world about AIDS. And the fact that he's still alive and healthy, far exceeding everyone's expectations, might be his greatest accomplishment of all. This isn't a bad man. Nobody ever said that he was.

VCR ALERT! VCR ALERT!
On Saturday night at 11:30, NBC is running "The Best of Will Ferrell" on "Saturday Night Live." I'm guessing we're getting skits like, "Get off the shed," "I drive a Dodge Stratus," "Neil Diamond: Storytellers," the Time-Life Thanksgiving commercial, the naked homeless model, the lovers, the cheerleaders, "Jeopardy," Dubya and the guy on the little motorized scooter in the department store. As long as we get the first four, I'm happy (and I'm sure I forgot at least one good one). Anyway, it's a momentous TV occasion ... just wanted to give you a heads-up.
But we can say this: With the Basketball Hall of Fame inducting him tonight, it's a shame that these misfires and failed comebacks have become part of his legacy. Instead of remembering Magic The Basketball Player, you can't help but remember every stumble from the past decade, when he wouldn't let go, when he wouldn't walk away, when he wouldn't move on, when he wouldn't shut up.

Maybe tonight -- after Bird introduces him, when his Hall of Fame plaque is unveiled, as he struggles to compose himelf during his speech, as he fights off the tears, as he shines for one final time -- Magic Johnson will finally move on. And forward. And maybe years from now, we can pretend that everything from 1991 to 2001 never happened, that our fondest memories of him will prevail, those of a 6-foot-9 point guard, all arms and legs, gifted beyond his years, somebody who could see things that nobody else could see, somebody consumed by winning, somebody who always seemed to smile at the right times, somebody who was larger than life. For 15 years, we were lucky enough to watch Earvin Johnson play basketball. And it was magic.

Now if only we could forget everything else.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.



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