Posted Oct 22 2010 9:05AM - Updated Oct 25 2010 2:08PM
We were in the midst of one of our typical, furious pick-up games when some kid none of us knew smashed through the gym door screaming.
"Magic Johnson is on TV right now retiring from the Lakers," he shouted before spinning back through the door even faster than he came through it a moment earlier.
What did that fool say? Why would Magic retire from the Lakers?
It was November of 1991, Magic was still in the prime of a Hall of Fame career and for teenagers like us that loved the game, it couldn't get much better than Magic and the Showtime Lakers.
We didn't even stop our game. There was no way he was serious. We just kept playing, running up and down the floor laughing at what surely had to be the worst practical joke of the century.
Keep in mind that this took place at a time before every second grader had their own iPhone. So it wasn't like someone could hustle over the bleachers and check and see if the kid was telling the truth. In fact, no one bothered to check it out until we were done playing our games, roughly an hour later.
So you can imagine how shocked we were to learn that Magic had indeed retired from the Lakers that day after announcing that he had tested HIV-positive. It was a gut-punch that rocked fans around the globe. It also shattered whatever shred of sports hero-whimsy that remained from my adolescence.
Magic helped restore much of that three months later in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, which to this day remains my favorite game. The man won five NBA titles, three MVPs, made countless memories and starred in some of the most memorable moments in basketball history.
His work in the 42nd All-Star Game helped rekindle my love of the game.
Magic went off, scoring 25 points, dishing out nine assists and adding five rebounds and two steals to win MVP honors at Orlando Arena. It was a stunning showcase for a player that I assumed would never ever perform that way again. (The Dream Team would come later that same year, so Magic's All-Star show turned out to be a warm up act, even though it seemed more like a retirement party at the time.)
You have to remember the times we lived in. Whenever you heard HIV and AIDS back then, it meant the end. Those weeks and months between when Magic announced his retirement and the All-Star Game, when he faded from the public spotlight and couldn't be seen on highlight shows every night, made me wonder what he would look like the next time I saw him.
I had no idea Magic was even going to play in the game since he was voted in without actually playing any games for the Lakers that season. Two of my buddies bailed on our plans to watch the game when they heard he was going to play, a move that they didn't have to explain given the circumstances. There was just so much we didn't know then.
I was a little apprehensive myself about watching the game. I didn't want to see Magic struggle. I wasn't sure I could take seeing him get embarrassed by Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, the headliners along with Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing, of a stacked Eastern Conference team.
Whatever apprehension I felt when the game started melted away during the two-minute standing ovation the crowd gave him as the players were introduced. After a start like that there was no way Magic wouldn't deliver a signature effort on that grand stage.
Magic seemed almost superhuman playing alongside his fellow Western Conference All-Stars (it was on NBC and no, we didn't have HD then), truly larger than life. And he was the same old Magic, smiling and running the show the way he always had while the crowd soaked up every second of the vintage Magic that dazzled us for the 29 minutes he played.
Always the showman, Magic controlled the action when he was on the floor. He played in the post a bit, showing off that baby sky hook. The no-look passes -- the ones that make you jump up out of your seat -- the high-fives, the fist-pumping, the taped up finger he loved to point at a teammate after he hit him with one of those passes, and the sheer joy he always played with, it was all there.
It was a blowout game, the Western Conference won 153-113, that turned into a tribute game in the final minutes. Both Jordan and Isiah playfully challenged him late, with Magic getting the best of those one-on-one exchanges. Then he sank a deep 3-pointer over Thomas with just seconds to play (he drained all three of his jumpers from deep) to punctuate his comeback.
If Magic's aim that day was to silence his critics, to prove to his detractors that someone diagnosed with HIV could do anything and to show his NBA colleagues that it was going to take more than three months away from the game to diminish his star ... he did all that and more on Feb. 9, 1992.
I've seen better games and I've seen much more important games. You know I've seen Magic play even better in far more important games than some All-Star Weekend affair that devoid of any semblance of defense.
Yet I've never enjoyed watching him more than I did during his 12th and final All-Star Game appearance.
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