Posted Nov 7 2011 6:41AM - Updated Nov 7 2011 10:18AM
The thing you have to understand is, we all thought he was going to die.
My buddy Goffer, who worked on the edit desk at The Washington Post at the time, called me at home in the early afternoon of Nov. 7, 1991. I was the beat guy covering the Bullets at the time for the paper, and in those pre-Internet, pre-24/7 news cycle, pre-Twitter, Facebook and iPhone days, the day after a game was often a quiet one.
The Bullets had played in Orlando the night before (of course, they lost, and this was to the pre-Shaq/Penny Magic). I caught an early flight back to D.C. from Florida and was writing what was quaintly called the "follow" in those days. When a team had the day off after a game you would check on any injuries, see if there were any trends developing from recent games, call a player looking for something good that you could put in the paper the next day. But no heavy lifting. The 1991-'92 season was a week old. Nothing portentious was going to happen on an off-day Thursday afternoon.
And then Goffer called. We shared the house I was living in at the time with two other American University graduates. We all loved basketball. We loved Magic. Even Goffer, from New Hampshire and a die-hard Celtics fans, loved Magic.
"There's a story on the wire that says Magic Johnson is going to retire," Goffer said. "It says he is HIV-positive."
I remember I was eating cereal at the time. Why I remember that, I don't know. I also remember almost dropping the phone.
In 1991, HIV and AIDS were the same thing in our eyes. If you had HIV, you had AIDS, and that meant death. Rock Hudson got AIDS, and then he died. Ryan White, the Indiana teenager, got AIDS, and then he died. You got AIDS, you died, and no one quite knew what to do with that reality when it came to 32-year-old Earvin Johnson, who had just spent the last decade dominating the NBA as few players before or since had -- and none had done it with his smile and elan and imagination.
But he was going to die now, and it was going to be horrible to watch.
"Did you see the movie 'Philadelphia?,' " Jerry West asked Saturday night. "When I saw that movie -- which was afterwards -- it was like, 'Oh, my God, is this what his fate was going to be?' We all were naive as to what was going on. I sat in my office and thought, Jesus Christ. It was a shock for us. It was a shock for every sports fan. And it was a shock for every casual fan. When he got here (in 1979) he was like one of those skinny second-year racehorses. And then he became a man. It was one of those things where you couldn't even imagine what was going to happen to him."
"I was in South Bend for a big Notre Dame game," recalled Dick Ebersol, the longtime executive producer of NBC Sports, on Sunday. "Notre Dame had a lot of big games back in those days. I broke down, weeping ... I remember being absolutely stunned and so sad."
Johnson had just played in The Finals for a seventh time in 12 seasons in June, 1991, against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. The Lakers were getting older, but they had acquired guard Sedale Threatt from Seattle in the offseason, and Johnson had given up $1 million of his own salary -- you could do that then -- to help pay Threatt's. And then came Nov. 7, 1991.
"It wasn't just that day," Johnson's longtime agent, Lon Rosen, recalled. "Earvin first found out Oct. 25, when I found out with him. November 7th was obviously a horrible day, but in a way, because he was finally able to tell people, I can't say he was relieved, but it was a burden off of him. He had to tell his teammates."
Indeed, Johnson lived with the diagnosis in silence for almost two weeks, since flunking his medical exam for a new insurance policy. A series of tests ruled out other diseases, but the insurance company wouldn't disclose why it had flunked him until he showed up to their office in person. The Lakers were in Paris, playing at the McDonald's Open -- an overseas tourney between an NBA team and European league champions that was played in the preseason from 1987-99. Johnson was on the trip but the Lakers were holding him out because they, and he, didn't know what was wrong. The team covered up by saying he had the flu.
After the tournament in France ended, Johnson flew back home to Los Angeles and finally met with the insurance company on Oct. 21. But the Lakers were going right back out on the road, to Utah and Vancouver. Johnson went with the team to Salt Lake City, still unsure of what was wrong.
"We've got these terrible back-to-backs in Utah and Vancouver," said Mike Dunleavy, who was in his second season as the Lakers' coach that year. "I get to my room in Utah and I get a call from (then-assistant general manager) Mitch Kupchak. And he says, 'Hey, Mike, Earvin's got to come back to L.A. He's not feeling well. He's got to have some tests.' And I'm like, 'Mitch, that's (bleeping) stupid. He didn't have to fly back to Utah with us. He could have just flown straight back to L.A. (from France).' And Mitch said, 'Mike, that's not it, and I'm scared to death.'
"When he said that to me, the first thing I thought was, cancer or AIDS. I got off the phone and called Earvin, and I said 'Earvin, I hear you have to go back to L.A. I don't know what it's about. I just wanted you to know that anything you need, I'm here for you.' Then he had come back and there was all this (stuff) about he has a cold or something. And I'm like, 'Lon, what the (bleep) is going on? This is the longest cold in the world.' "
Of course, it wasn't a cold.
"The press conference was really supposed to happen the next day," Rosen said. "It wasn't supposed to be on Thursday the seventh; it was going to be on Friday the eighth. Somehow, part of the story got out early in the morning. Luckily, the reporter that was supposed to break it didn't break it (a local radio station had called Rosen and told him it had a story that Johnson was going to retire, which was true, and that he had AIDS, which was not true), and we were able to get together. The doctors and the experts thought he didn't have a lot of time to be here. He didn't think that. And he proved them wrong."
That morning, Dunleavy -- who'd finally gotten Rosen to tell him a few days before, adding him to a strict circle that also included West and longtime athletic trainer Gary Vitti -- was beginning practice.
"He's trying to keep it under wraps, and we're at practice at Loyola Marymount," Dunleavy said. "They call me and say, 'Stop practice. Send everybody to The Forum, right now. Don't let them take showers.' But then, some guys were going over in their cars and they were starting to hear things on the radio...
"We go into our locker room (at the Great Western Forum), and Earvin comes in and he tells the players. I cannot tell you how emotional that was. Every one of us, we're all thinking, Earvin's going to be dead in two years. He's going to wither away. Here's this guy we love, and you're just thinking the worst. Tears were just flowing. And then he goes upstairs and gives this press conference, and he's like, 'Ah, I'm going to beat this thing.' "
There had barely been time to call more than a few people before the news conference, held at The Forum. NBA Commissioner David Stern got the word the day before and had flown in. Dr. Michael Mellman, Johnson's physician and the man who had told him the diagnosis. West, Lakers owner Jerry Buss, and teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kurt Rambis, along with Cookie Johnson, Magic's longtime girlfriend, whom he had just married a few months before, were also there. (Between Oct. 25 and until Nov. 6, the day before the news broke, Cookie -- who was also pregnant -- didn't know if she had contracted the virus as well. But her test came back clean. With in-utero testing unreliable at the time, the Johnsons wouldn't find out their unborn child was negative until he was born.)
Just before the presser started, Rosen got Magic in touch with Larry Bird. Johnson told Bird what he was about to tell the world.
"I felt like someone had sucked the air out of my lungs," Bird said in his co-biography with Johnson, When The Game Was Ours.
"I had this terrible empty feeling, like how I felt when my dad took his own life," he said.
And then, somehow, Magic pulled himself together, went out and told the world what he told Bird. He made clear he didn't have AIDS -- not yet, anyway. "I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have," he said. "So you'll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league. Hopefully David'll have me for a while. And going on with my life. I guess I get to enjoy some of the other sides of living."
But nobody believed him. Magic Johnson was supposed to go away and die.
And then, the most amazing thing happened.
It was not easy in those first weeks and months. There was much more we didn't know about HIV than what we did know. Johnson had a dalliance with President George H.W. Bush's National Commission on AIDS that lasted less than a year. Jazz forward Karl Malone and Cavs guard Mark Price publicly expressed some misgivings about being on the court with Magic, because few people really knew how the virus was transmitted. Could you get it from the sweat of someone who was HIV positive? Or if, somehow, they bled into an open cut on your arm?
And, frankly, this was not just another basketball player. This was Magic Johnson. If Michael Jordan was the game's biggest star that year, Magic was its biggest salesman; the trigger man of the league's sexiest, most exciting franchise, who made Showtime and Winnin' Time into catchphrases. He was the biggest winner in a generation of big winners, like Bird, Jordan and Isiah Thomas. To lose him was an economic blow to the league; to lose him in this manner raised all manner of uncomfortable questions, about privacy issues, about what the faces of the league were doing when they weren't shining on the court, about how to deal with the fact that the most famous person with HIV on the planet was an employee of the NBA.
"We spent so much time on it, more than anyone could ever know," Stern recalled Saturday night. "We thought our league and its future hung in the balance, based upon education of our players, of our fans, of what was legal and what was not legal in terms of testing, what the science was and how much we could get our hands around it. It was a tumultuous time for us."
There were rumors that Johnson was gay. He denied it, just as simply as if someone asked him if he was a parrot. When he was applauded on the "Arsenio Hall Show" for saying he wasn't gay (as if that somehow mattered), that enraged gay activists. The gay community, which had been dealing with HIV and AIDS for a decade with next to no public support, was understandably angry that a heterosexual man's battle with HIV took all of the oxygen out of the room, and that most people were sympathetic toward him yet shunned others with the same horrible illness.
People reached out to help. One person who steadied Johnson in those first days was the activist Elizabeth Glaser, who had contracted HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion in 1981 while giving birth and unwittingly passed the virus on to her two children (Elizabeth Glaser was married to the actor Paul Michael Glaser). Their daughter died in 1988.
Before Elizabeth Glaser's death in 1994, she told Rosen how important Johnson's disclosure was.
"She told me, 'We need a face for this disease, and he can do that for us,' " Rosen recalled. "'He can raise awareness, and he'll help save my son's life.' And her son is now, I think, 27 years old."
Johnson's wealth also helped. He was able to begin taking a regimen of drugs almost immediately after his condition was discovered, something that many others with HIV and AIDS couldn't afford. He started taking the drug AZT, which was generally considered the premier treatment at the time.
"It was a very controversial drug at the time," Rosen recalled. "Sometimes it worked for people a little bit, sometimes it made you very, very ill. He was intelligent enough to get a really good doctor, who he listened to. He started taking AZT immediately. It made him sick ... he got ill. Stomach problems. But he never let on."
And he didn't die.
He was voted into the 1992 All-Star Game by the fans, and the league never hesitated in getting him to Orlando for the game. It was a two-hour lovefest, and ended in ridiculous, storybook fashion. In the final minutes, with Johnson on defense, Thomas ran a clearout, going between his legs, and starting, and stopping, and throwing up an airball over the 6-foot-9 Magic. The next time, it was Jordan with the ball, taking Magic to the baseline, and jumping over him, and missing. And then Magic had the ball, and Isiah almost ran out to midcourt to guard him, and Magic backed the 6-foot-1 Thomas down to the 3-point line, turned and half-shot-putted a half-hook from 27 feet.
Swish. And, bedlam. His third 3-pointer of the game, on three shots. The final 14.5 seconds of the 1992 NBA All-Star Game were never played.
"I remember when he hit that third straight 3-pointer," said Ebersol, whose network was broadcasting the game. "I ran out of my seat to go back to the truck to make sure the commentary was exactly what I wanted. And it was. I went running back to the truck. It was my decision on when the game would go off the air. The game was running a little long and I said don't you dare go off the air until you talk to him."
Said Stern: "He made that last shot, and I got a chance to hug him. I guess it was Tim Hardaway that gave up his starting spot (for Johnson). I felt good then and I feel good as I think about it now. I'd like to think about his state of mind, which was always good, had something to do with his ability to develop the courage and fortitude to do so much."
He found other things to do. He worked games for NBC as an analyst ("Whose game is it? It's Michael Jordan's game!!" he exulted during the 1992 Finals). He had a wondrous summer on the Dream Team, the catalyst who convinced Jordan to play, and who convinced Bird to take his balky back out for one more victory lap around the world. Players on teams around the world yelled "Majjeeek!" and took pictures of him while the U.S. team beat them by 30.
Ebersol found out personally that Johnson was sharp as ever on the court.
"He was with us during the Finals that year," Ebersol said. "The night between Game 1 and 2, we were in Chicago, and the hotel we were staying at was adjacent to a sports club. There was a full-length basketball court in it. We were all out there and he played in the game. I was about as wide open as you could be, because I was cheating. And he threw me a court-length pass. I'd never seen a ball move that fast. One finger just went back into my hand and it was swollen for two weeks. I was so stunned, somebody came back and blocked my shot, anyway."
He got into business for real. Michael Ovitz, who had made Creative Artists Agency into a Hollywood entertainment colossus, had taken him under his wing while he was still a player, and now, with some time on his hands, Magic jumped in with both feet. He found opportunities selling brand-name franchises in black neighborhoods that hadn't seen too many Starbucks open where they lived. He opened a chain of theatres bearing his name, pointing out to investors that black people went to the movies more loyally than any other minority group. He began to own instead of be an employee.
Everything didn't turn to gold. There was a chain of stores called Magic 32 with high-end, high-priced products that didn't sell. There was a last, unlamented comeback as a player, at age 36, that ended not with hosannas to his fortitude and courage, or even sympathy for his plight, but snickering and scorn. There was a 16-game coaching stint in '94 that was only memorable for the time he smashed Vlade Divac's cell phone when it went off during a meeting. There was, um, "The Magic Hour". (Well, you can never have enough Sheila E in your life to suit me.)
And, through it all, he didn't die.
"I know it sounds trite, but that's the only way I've seen him live his life," Rosen said. "It was a challenge. It was a challenge when he lost to the Boston Celtics in '84. He looked deep, looked at what he did wrong, he studied. And when he got this disease, that's what he did. He faced it straight up and that's how he looked at it. He looked at it as a challenge. What he did was he wanted to learn everything about this disease, and he did."
Today, he gets up every day between 4 and 4:15 a.m., and he works out before he goes to work. (He worked out so arduosly that he actually got too thick a couple of years ago, and decided he had to drop some pounds.) He developed a relationship with his son, Andre, who came from another relationship Johnson had in the early 1980s, and blended him into the family. He takes his current group of meds every day, at the same time, and he is still HIV positive, but the disease has been fought to a standstill. It does not advance. There are almost no traces of the virus in his blood.
In the early days of HIV and AIDS research, the normal pattern for most HIV-positive patients was for AIDS to develop within 10 years or so of their HIV diagnosis, with death occurring within a couple of years of the full-blown AIDS occurrence. Yet a small percentage of HIV-positive patients survived much longer, for two, and sometimes three decades. Today, those people, while still not the norm, are no longer the outliers they were. (An even smaller percentage of long-term survivors -- estimated as few as one in every 500 -- are known as "long-term non-progressors" or "elite controllers," who don't develop AIDS even though they are not on the normal antiretroviral therapy almost all other patients need to hold off the disease.)
Whatever category into which Johnson falls, he had great good fortune. The disease was diagnosed in him at a very early stage. He had the money to buy cutting-edge medications, and keep buying them, for years. He was already a world-class athlete in phenomenal shape. And he had a strong family whose faith helped steel him in tough times. Or, as Dunleavy put it succinctly, "Something worked."
Forbes listed Johnson's net worth at $500 million as of late 2009, making him one of the richest African-Americans on the planet, in the stratosphere with other one-named wonders: Oprah, Tiger, Diddy. He sold his 5 percent stake in the Lakers years ago and, rumor has it, is right in the middle of the fight to bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles after sniffing around the Pistons before Tom Gores bought them last spring.
But tonight, Johnson will host other notables, including Jordan, West, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Heat president -- and Johnson's former Laker coach -- Pat Riley, Buss and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert at "Point Forward Day" at Staples Center -- the name playing off of Johnson's status as one of the first "point forwards" in the NBA and his desire not to look back on what happened that day in 1991. His Magic Johnson Foundation, also 20 years old, has raised more than $15 million since '91 for underserved communities, providing scholarships to schools and HIV and AIDS education and testing. Donations from texters will further fund three of Johnson's philanthropic projects, including the 18 HIV testing centers around the country that are open today.
HIV and AIDS continue to ravage the African-American community. In 2009, the last year where full statistics are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 21,000 diagnoses of HIV infection were made by African-Americans, almost double that of the next highest ethnic group, white Americans. CDC estimates that the incidence rate of HIV in 2009 was seven times higher for black men and women than for white men and women.
"The reason is, when it gets right down to it, it's great that he's alive, and it's a major accomplishment, because a lot of people -- including him -- thought that he might not be here," Rosen said. "But this disease is still out there. It's not cured. People can get complacent ... he's using this day as another day to put out information."
The thing you have to understand is, we all thought he was going to die.
Except, he didn't.
Initially, Anne Buford's only job was to bring the donuts.
Her big brother, R.C., called her one day in 2004. She was in New York, having risen to positions of great prominence in the fashion world -- as a top editor and, then, corporate spokeswoman for Vogue magazine and its legendary editor, Anna Wintour (Meryl Streep's star turn in "The Devil Wears Prada" is an homage to Wintour). Following that, she became the spokeswoman for Polo Ralph Lauren. But R.C., whom you know in another context as the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, wanted her to reach out to a young man from Cameroon: Alexis Wangmene, who was in town with his basketball team, the African junior national team. R.C. Buford and his wife were planning to adopt Wangmene (which they eventually did) and wanted his little sister to welcome the young man to the States.
So she brought donuts for him and his teammates. They were from all over Africa, tall and young, many with the same dreams that kids in America had -- to somehow overcome the odds and play in the NBA. When she was done visiting with them, she was curious. Where were they from? What were their lives like back home?
She wanted to meet more of them. Bugging R.C. at every opportunity, she finally got him to introduce her to his friend, Amadou Gallo Fall, who had emigrated from Senegal as a young man himself, graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia and risen like a firecracker through the NBA's ranks, first as a scout for the Dallas Mavericks, then the team's director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs. The NBA was about to hire him as its vice president of development in Africa.
Fall was already acting on his extraordinary vision in Africa, having opened the SEEDS Academy (Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal) in Dakar, the capital city, in 2003. SEEDS brought young men who weren't in the thrall of soccer, the country's sport of choice, to a place where they would undergo months of rigorous academic work along with learning the basics of basketball. Those who showed special promise would be repatriated in the States, as Gallo had been, and put in U.S. high schools with the hopes of getting college scholarships. Those who weren't quite good enough to play in the States would stay behind and help teach the next group of youngsters. Once Anne Buford went to Senegal on her own and saw what Gallo was doing, she was hooked and wanted to tell their -- and his -- story.
There simply couldn't be anyone more right than Anne Buford to tell their story. She has been immersed in the sports world since her days growing up in Kansas. She was 14 when her big brother was a grad assistant for Larry Brown on the University of Kansas team that won the 1988 national championship. She slept on Alvin Gentry's couch when he was a young assistant in Lawrence and R.C. would kick her out of his house; Bill Bayno -- then a grad assistant at Kansas, now a Timberwolves assistant coach -- broke all of her girlfriends' hearts after one date, and told her what her secret present was on her 18th birthday, which is why she loves and hates him to this day. When she worked weekends for NBC Sports in the early 1990s, the guy in charge of the interns was David Kahn, now the Wolves' general manager. She's been to India with Kyle Korver and on the town in New York with Quinn Buckner.
Initially, she thought she'd spend a year on the project, focusing primarily on the lives of the young men in Senegal. She wound up taking six years to make the film, focusing on four of the teenagers as they, unexpectedly, came to the States and got into the U.S. college basketball factory -- Assane Sene (at Virginia), Dethie Fall (Roanoke College), Aziz N'Diaye (Washington) and Byago Diouf (Carroll College). Raising funds on the fly like any other first-time filmmaker, she finally finished the film, "Elevate," earlier this year. The movie premiered last March at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin and opened to general release last weekend in New York and Los Angeles. Anne Buford is back in New York, happy to talk about the film and willing to say bad stuff about her big brother, whom she loves dearly.
Me: As a documentary filmmaker, how do you avoid people knowing they're always on camera -- doesn't that affect how they behave?
Anne Buford: When we were shooting in Senegal, it was the 'American Film Crew' that was coming to SEEDS Academy. And that was their world. And it was very easy for them to show you their world. At that point, they weren't self-conscious to 'act' for you. They were just being kids. And kids are a little bit unconscious, especially these kids. They weren't American kids. They were very sophisticated, more sophisticated than you would have thought. Like at one point I said to one of the boys, 'Do you like 50 Cent?' And he said, 'I'm West Coast.' I was like, oh, my God, the Internet has changed the world.
The Q Foundation [the foundation of former Duke star and current Sixers player development director Quin Snyder] had bought the Academy like nine computers for an Internet cafe area. And they weren't the latest, greatest computers; they were computers that would work in Africa. And so the boys had the ability to have computers because of that. But once you get to America, and you're seven feet tall, and you're miserable, and you're being followed by a film crew and a boom [mike], that's where the filmmaker, you look at your subject, and you think, 'I'm shooting children. They're kids. They're teenagers. And I cannot exploit these kids. I don't care how important the shot is; I don't care what I'm going to miss.' And at that point, if you care, if you have a heart about people, you have to put down the camera. So we didn't shoot Assane and Dethie a lot at school. It still felt to them like we shot them every day. But we really didn't.
Me: What documentaries influenced you as a filmmaker?
AB: The Robert McNamara doc ["The Fog of War"]. I loved "The Two Escobars." I was already doing the film by then. I always say I love "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." That's like my favorite film of all time. You know, when I'm sitting on panels, everyone else has these like, very erudite films. And I'm like, 'Ferris Bueller?' I love John Hughes. You know, because you can have nuance and importance, but still tell a funny story. To me, that's the way to appeal to people. And, I think, to the boys. Life is hard. When you're young, it's either all good or all bad. And then if you get older, you have to learn that on the day you get something good, is the day you get something bad. Amadou says, 'We always have to be ascending.' It's about just all rolling with the punches.
Me: How did you pick these four kids?
AB: Assane I met at Basketball Without Borders in 2005. And I don't speak a word of French. I don't speak any Wolof [the Senegalese language spoken in that area of the country]. I never learned it. I have no ear for language. And so it was fascinating, because he shows up, and he's 6-foot-11, 177 pounds, and he has this little teeny band-aid with a cotton ball underneath it, and I said to him, through a translator, 'What happened to your shoulder?' And he said, 'It's dislocated.' I said, 'Wow, that's not doing very much for a dislocated shoulder.' And he was a kid who was the fighter on the court. At that point, there were a couple of kids at SEEDS who were older and bigger. A guy named Mustafa, who went and played in Belgium. He was 7-foot-1, 240, which is big for them. Assane had no fear. He was there. He was gonna fight, and he was gonna be the gnat, and he wasn't going to be respectful. He says, 'I have heart. I'm not strong, but I have heart.'
Aziz, when I first met him in April, 2005, he was the next generation of SEEDS. He was big. And I watched him grow into being the leader. All the boys have a place where they eat at SEEDS at the table. No matter if there's only two of them, and they're sitting at a table of 20 from each other, they still sit in their places. And he was the one nearest the kitchen. And that was the dominant role. And all the boys would say, 'Aziz took my lunch.' But they all loved him. He's kind of the non-bully bully. He doesn't bully you. But if he wants something, he'll tell you ...
At a life skills class in September 2005, Billy Bayno was talking to a group from SEEDS in Senegal -- it was in Dakar -- and a group that Masai [Ujiri, now the Nuggets' general manager] had brought from Nigeria. And he was talking to them about the importance of English as the language of basketball, and that they all needed to learn English and French. And for the French guys, it was time for them to learn English. And they asked them to write goals for a year, and goals for five years, in both French and English. And the goal was for them to help each other, like the Nigerian guys would help the Senegalese guys in English, and vice versa. So Aziz stands up, and reads in French -- something, I couldn't tell you what he said -- and he translated it into English, and he said, 'My goals are to marry a nice girl, have a family, go away and play basketball, and come back and build a house in Senegal.' And I thought, 'What 16-year-old stands up and says I want to get married, have a family, build a house?' And he was not self-conscious about it. He was like, this is who I am, this is what's important to me.
Me: Did you have this jones to direct movies when you were at Vogue?
AB: Since I grew up in Kansas, I can always remember, TV was like my outlet to the world. And sports, really, our lives revolved around it. My father played college football, so when we were young, our lives revolved around Oklahoma State football games on the weekend, and then Wichita State basketball, and R.C.'s basketball and football schedule. So everything was very sporty. And then when I got to Vogue, on the weekends in 1994, I would work for Quinn Buckner on the Showtime show at NBC Sports, as an intern. And that's when David Kahn was in charge of the interns. So I met David through coach [Larry] Brown in Portland in 1990 when the Spurs played the Trail Blazers in the playoffs. And so I knew David a little bit. He was kind of running the back deck. And I knew Quinn through Alvin Gentry. And so I was like the young, you know, I just knew them all. Like I would take Quinn and Alvin out in New York, 'cause I worked at Vogue on the weekdays, so I could get into anywhere. So we would all go out on the weekends and behave ourselves.
Me: Fashion and basketball seem so diametrically opposed. Is there any overlap?
AB: You have a lot of overlap. First you have a lot of personalities. You have a lot of interesting people. Anna Wintour is an amazing person. The film is such a classic example of what I learned from her, which was, take something that you want people to care about. If you made it interesting for them to care about, they would support it. What she would say was, you remember 7th on Sale [the Council of Fashion Designers of America-Vogue Initiative, which raised millions of dollars in the early '90s for services, advocacy and care for AIDS patients]? The designers would donate clothes, and they would sell the clothes, and they would do a big party and get press for the party, and then people would read about it, and then they would learn about AIDS. And that's essentially what the film is about. Amadou is doing something really good in Senegal, creating opportunities for young African guys that he'd had. The NBA is besides the point, but it's really the hook. The boys don't know anything about college basketball. But they know about the NBA because of Amadou and DeSagana Diop [the former first-round pick of the Cavaliers and a Senegal native] and those guys. And it's kind of beside the point, but it's what makes Americans take notice of them, that they're seven feet tall and they have a possibility of maybe playing basketball at a higher level.
Me: When you were filming, would they talk to you? Or would you say. 'Don't talk to me; live your life?'
AB: No! Assane and I would talk a lot about, 'Do you love me for the film, or do you love me for me?' Which is what he would say to me. And I would call R.C. and say, 'What do I say?' Because yes, I love him. How can you be around people and not care about them? Especially, at that point, I'm the only one they know in America. And the crew. And so, you don't [ignore them]. You all become a bit of a family. No NCAA rules were broken. When I started this project, I never thought the boys would come [to the States]. I was going to do a year project at SEEDS Academy, maybe a short. It was my first project. I thought, I've been around basketball my whole life, and I think this is interesting. So maybe other people would think it was interesting. I didn't think, oh, my gosh, one of the guys is going to come. Maybe that was naive. I thought it was really cool that all the NBA scouts were all there together -- like Milt Newton [the Wizards' assistant general manager], who I'd gone to college with. He was at Kansas then. And Milt and I were buddies when we were there. And Kevin Pritchard [the former Blazers' GM]. Kevin was my grade...
When we were shooting Aziz, and he gets hurt, your first inclination is like, oh, my God, I've gotta get down there and make sure he's okay. But then as a filmmaker, you're like, that's not really my place. And so you're stuck in the middle. But I know Nate [Pomeday, the coach at Lake Forest Academy in Illinois, where Aziz went to high school upon coming to the States] is there, and Nate's miked, and I can hear what's going on. And Aziz would not have liked it if I had come on the court ... you are each other's family. I've known them since they were 15. Now they're all 22 and 23. They call R.C. 'Uncle R.C.' I'm like, nobody calls R.C. 'Uncle R.C.'
Me: How did you know when you had enough for a movie?
AB: I think you pick and choose ... in 2007, Assane's visa had been delayed. Homeland Security had flagged it. So at that point, we thought that was our story; OK, there are visa issues that these guys have to face. But then, Byago's visa got completely turned down. You never know why. I happened to be inside when Assane's visa got turned down, or when it got delayed, and I just said to the woman, 'Can you tell me what's going on?' And she was very sweet and told me. She didn't have to. Byago's, the person did not want to talk to the person who was with him. So, you don't know.
You don't want to repeat the same story. I think, really, honestly, I never want to do anything to hurt the boys' NCAA eligibility, so I like to make it that it really wasn't about the NCAA, 'cause it never was. But I think when all of a sudden Aziz and Assane are playing each other on TV [in a 2010 Virginia-Washington game], you're like, 'Oh, my God, this is really magical.' Like, who would have thought that these two guys from Dakar, Senegal, would be playing in Hawaii at the Maui Classic in 2010? You have other endings, but that's kind of the perfect [ending]. And we didn't say they were playing in the same game, 'cause it was too hard to tell the story. And you have Jay Bilas talking about SEEDS. We have nothing to do with it; we're licensing the footage from ESPN. And so, you know, that's when you're like, this really means something. Sports can be used as a tool for social change ...
The NBA's amazing at all levels. Who else would let Amadou Gallo Fall have a full-time job, like Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson let him have a full-time job where he has this school, and I'm sure they support to some degree when he was working for them, where he takes his friends and his co-workers from other teams that are competing against each other? They go over there, they all travel together and work together with these kids. Where they work in a world where they need people who are extremely tall, like seven feet tall? That Amadou graduates Magna cum Laude from school, really emphasizes education, so that these boys can them come to America, and get 1080s on their SATs, and go to some of the finest institutions and graduate -- if they have the proper mentoring the whole way through?
Me: Amadou has an incredible sense of duty, doesn't he?
AB: He got one B in college. He had taken a music class his senior year, 'cause he thought he would pick up girls. And he got the B in that class. It was a guitar class, he says. And then he really wanted to be a doctor, but he couldn't get a scholarship. So that's why he started working at Georgetown Medical School, started taking classes at Georgetown Business School, and helping kids. There's kids that he's helped come over for a long time. And I think he may have realized at some point that these guys need some prep work. They need to be kind of given some life skills about what they're going to encounter.
Like, there's an opening scene where Amadou really sets the stage. And Rolando Blackman has gone over with him, and, you know, the boys don't know who he is. But Amadou tells them that he's important. He often says, 'Africa has a perception problem. You are our ambassadors. We need you to go out and change the world, create opportunities.' And Amadou was not very keen on this in the beginning. He took me aside, and he was very serious -- I always say it felt like he had me by my collar, but he didn't, he didn't touch me -- and he just said. 'This is not about pity. This is about hope and opportunity.' None of these boys want you to feel sorry for them. Because, you know, Amadou, that doesn't even cross his mind. I always say if I say something about the boys, he's just like, they have it easy. The kids back here, the ones that don't get to come, they're the ones who have it harder. But he views it as everybody has a place. Whether they're at SEEDS Academy and they pass the Baccalaureate test and they go on to play for the school in Senegal, they're as important as the boys here (in America). Because some of them have to be the ones on the ground in Senegal. And so he feels like everyone has a purpose. The ones 'left behind,' so to speak, aren't the ones left behind.
Me: So what happens now with the movie?
AB: Well, it opens in L.A., and it opened in Dallas ... we won the Oklahoma City Film Festival. We won the Dallas Film Festival. Those were logical places for us to go back. Los Angeles, when we were at the Los Angeles Film Festival, it's a basketball town that really liked the film, because they get the humor. And a lot of people who don't like basketball like the film, but the way they approach it is much different. It's a much more poignant story to them...
[Lakers coach] Mike Brown was at the screening in L.A. It was Father's Day, he was away from his family, and he and a friend came. And Danny Ferry [now working in the Spurs' front office after being the Cavaliers' GM], I always say he's my publicist among the guys. He's always telling somebody to go see it. Or I'll get a call saying 'Danny told me to call you.' I really appreciate that. I hate Duke basketball. I'm a Kansas fan. And like, Duke guys are my favorite guys. So it's been a hard transition for me. And there was a guy who was there to watch the film. I was sitting behind Mike Brown. And the guy was sitting behind me. He was like two rows away. And when Aziz was playing, this man was like, 'Get that guy! Get that guy!' He was saying it out loud to Mike Brown. Like, Mike's new to L.A. I was like, this is kind of funny. And no other place would you have had that.
Me: How do you get nominated for awards?
AB: We submitted to the Independent Spirit Awards. Whether we get nominated or not, there's a lot of great films this year. And we submitted to the Academy Awards. At one point somebody says to me, 'you've got to have guns and violence from Africa, and you don't have LeBron James.' And I said, 'Well, I never set out to make a film that had guns and violence in Africa, because that's not my experience.' That's like saying all of America is the same, like L.A. or New York. It's so different everywhere you go. And we don't have LeBron James. I knew the film that I had. I didn't know the scenes we would have.
Me: So, I need one embarassing story about your brother, the famous general manager.
AB: OK, so his middle name is Canterbury...
Me: You mean, like the Canterbury Tales?
AB: I looked at my mother one day, 'Do you spell Canterbury C-A-N-T-E-R-B-U-R-Y?' And she was like, 'How do you not know this?' I was like, 'Cause it's hard.' So he got my mom's maiden name. And all the players are like, 'What's the C stand for?' So if you want embarassing stories, you have to talk to Bill Pope [the Jayhawks' student manager in '88 and now an advance scout for the Pistons] or Bill Self [Kansas' coach, who was a young assistant coach with Buford under Brown at Kansas]. Some people say the way he dresses is embarassing.
"Elevate" opened last Friday in New York and Los Angeles. It will be available on-demand in a few weeks, with a DVD release next Feb. 14 and an airing on ESPN's 30/30 documentary series in the spring of 2012.
Note: the interview with Anne Buford was conducted Friday afternoon, before R.C. Buford's arrest Friday evening, when he was charged with DWI after crashing his car into a fence. The Spurs released a statement that claimed Buford, a diabetic, had suffered a severe low blood sugar reaction that caused the accident.
Does the league know how angry its players are this morning?
There are always hard feelings during a collective bargaining agreement. It isn't unlike your annual review at work, when your boss tells you all of the things you did wrong during the year, and how you aren't really a vital piece of the organization. But ultimately, you keep your job, and you have to take care of yourself or your family, so you put the hard feelings aside and move on. But things seem different these days.
Michael Jordan has always been treated with deference -- and feared -- by many of those who played with and against him. But when he became part of the labor story last week, with The New York Times writing he was leading the small-market teams' insistence on slashing the players' share of Basketball Related Income as the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, the reaction this time was quite different.
One prominent agent who is normally slow to anger called last Friday at 11 p.m. He would never, he said, ever send another one of his players to Charlotte. Jordan, he said, was a rank hypocrite, who tried to get every last dollar out of Jerry Reinsdorf's pocket as a player, yet slammed the door shut on other players who only wanted the same opportunity.
When he was a player, Jordan seethed at being underpaid by the Bulls for most of his career. He famously chided the late Wizards owner Abe Pollin at a meeting during the last lockout in 1998, saying, "if you can't make a profit, sell your team."
It isn't known if any of the players at Saturday's collective bargaining session in New York, which Jordan attended, said the same thing to him. But others weren't happy.
"Damn, MJ...That's how you feel?," Pacers second-year forward Paul George tweeted early Sunday morning.
Minutes later, apparently responding to Timberwolves rookie guard Malcolm Lee's question, George tweeted about Jordan: "he said we gettin too much on that 50-50 (BRI number) and want us to get 37"...
And George tweeted to Golden State rookie Klay Thompson: "man straight hypocrite bro.. He should've been the 1st one behind us smh"
Certainly, people are allowed to change their views over time, and Jordan has to think about a much bigger picture now that he's signing the checks rather than cashing them. Yet Jordan is involved in business arrangements with many of the players whose salaries he's seeking to reduce. His Jordan Brand has among its endorsing clients Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Rip Hamilton Gerald Wallace and Ray Allen.
But it isn't just Jordan. There is incredible anger among players just under the surface. Anger at having to give up hundreds of millions of dollars, of course, but also anger stemming from their feeling that they aren't being treated as partners by the owners, but as employees. Certainly, they aren't partners in the financial sense; they aren't making payrolls or buying insurance, or taking on massive service debts. But that anger, no matter what side of the divide you are on, is real, and it threatens to do great damage to the league well after the lockout is over. I cannot tell you how furious players are that this lockout continues.
"The guys are going bananas," another agent with several star players said Sunday night.
Over and over in the last two weeks, I have heard the same refrain from players and agents, from big markets and small ones, max guys and minimum salaried guys. You can forget asking about community service work. You can forget asking for cooperation for NBA Cares. Basketball Without Borders? Don't even ask. All of the public service requests that the league has made of its players -- in part, it must be said, to quell fan anger after the Brawl at Auburn Hills in 2004 -- are in jeopardy.
And one agent intimated that players who would normally try to gut their way through injuries and assorted other hurts now will wait until they're 100 percent before returning to the court. Why should they jeopardize their careers, the agent asked, when the owners obviously care nothing about them?
"They're being treated like employees," the slow-to-anger agent said. "And people who are treated like employees are 9-to-5ers. They punch the clock and they're out the door."
Which one of you holds up the "Union" sign like Norma Rae? From Dan Allen:
I'm a longtime NBA fan and always enjoy reading your stuff. I was thinking this week about the BRI situation and how the whole discussion is unwelcome to the general public -- particularly in the current economic climate. I wonder if players and owners would be willing to take 47 percent each (so that each side gets the satisfaction of having the other side take the amount they were asking) and give the remaining 6 percent back to the fans in the form of cheaper tickets, concessions, and other merchandise. They'd go for that deal, right? I've lost track of how many times I've heard people on both sides talk about how the fans are the real victims in this dispute, so why not put their money where their mouths are?
NBA fans unite! We will not take anything less than 6%!
It's a great sentiment, Dan, and completely not gonna happen. Each percentage point is roughly $40 million; I'm pretty sure neither the players nor the owners, despite loving to see you in the stands and hoping you watch on TV, is going to sign off on "giving" fans $240 million in any form. There will have to be some major damage control and asking fans for forgiveness when this is all done, but it won't go that far.
This just makes me remember how much I miss going to Caribana. From Neil MacMillan:
As a Canadian, and a supporter of the Raptors, I think I qualify to be part of the most optimistic fan base of the NBA. Keep in mind that barely two years ago the Toronto Raptors were voted by the New York Times as " the most dysfunctional franchise in pro sports." I have witnessed a superstar feign an injury, while we pay him millions to sit on a bench, the better part of his last two seasons in order to be traded. Once traded he has hardly missed a single game, his injury miraculously clearing up once he left the Raptors. Twice in the last six years has this happened to us. The last time was when we were taken to the cleaners by a member of the Hall of Fame, who again, from a fan's perspective, signed only to gain a lucrative deal, weakly play a couple of games, then sit on the bench and collect his pay until we bought him out. Yet in spite of this we are such good fans up here that we pack the Air Canada Center at greater numbers than infinitely better teams do South of the Border, and we suffer the odd indignity from players and media alike. We are good fans waiting, forever it seems, for a good team.
As great a fan as I am of the game, I have noticed that the sympathies of the fan base over the years has shifted from the players to the owners, but I believe for good reason. There was an article in a Toronto newspaper last year by a journalist who interviewed workers at the Toronto International Airport. Toronto, being the city it is ( the fourth-largest city in North America ), has professional players from every major sport pass through its terminals. Without exception, all those interviewed, from floor cleaners, to check-in attendants, to stewardesses, to baggage-handlers and customs officials, all said that professional basketball players were the most arrogant of all the sports personalities they come into contact with, and the most difficult to deal with. As a 40-year fan myself, I have to say that the present player has a swagger and arrogance bordering on a misguided self-belief that they are part of the second coming.
It is not their fault. We pay a guy thousands of dollars a minute (yes minute) to play in an arena in a city like Detroit, where something approaching a 26-percent of a segment of the population is out of work. How many times have you heard a play-by-play commentator comment on a player's "heart" or "passion", simply because this thousand-or-so-a-minute star dove to the floor to chase a loose ball. Don't they realize that half those watching would actually dive on a busy highway, and then eat the basketball if they made in one season what these guys make in a single game!
I try not to trade in anecdotal evidence for this very reason, Neil. It may well be that NBA players are more difficult than other pro athletes. Or, it may not be that way at all. I don't like making sweeping judgments based on a single newspaper article, no matter how well reported. I do, however, understand your frustration at watching stars who don't want to be there (which is baffling to me, as I think Toronto is one of the great towns in the league). And, indeed, the juxtaposition of watching men in shorts make millions while millions of people can't find steady work in this country occasionally jars my senses. I can only hope the Raps draft or acquire someone who appreciates the support you guys give them, year after year.
Of course, the first round of the playoffs would now be best 17 out of 33. From Joe Weaver:
Whether or not a fan views competitive balance as a good thing for the NBA all depends upon what kind of fan they are. If you like the superpower setup, you are either a fan of one of the superpowers (or willing to bandwagon them) or you are just a fan of basketball in general and not a specific team. The reason you need competitive balance is so fans in Sacramento, Milwaukee, Charlotte, etc. feel like they have a chance to be good if their front offices make good moves.
If the NBA wants to be a superpower league then they may has well just eliminate 8-10 teams because those teams don't have much of a reason to exist. So the league has to make a decision: you either go with the 30 teams you have and create a system that allows them all (if run well) to have a chance at winning someday. Or you abandon the smaller markets entirely and make the league only about Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami, etc.
It would probably be a better product with only 20-22 teams and eight teams making the playoffs. As a matter of fact, I know it would. And I wonder if at any point the players really believe that if they continue to hold out because they "need dollars in this deal" that they could lose a whole bunch of jobs for their union. Of course this is the same question the union has to ask itself. Are we about our entire workforce or just about the star players? When you are listening to agents, it seems like it's only about the top end guys, which isn't what the union is supposed to be about. The top end guys are going to make a ton of money no matter what system they've got.
I don't think the NBA believes it an either-or question, Joe. The owners want the big-market teams and the mid- and lower-market teams to be successful, which is why it is fighting so hard for a more punitive luxury tax on the league's biggest spending teams. (I don't think you can create a system that assures competitive balance, but that's another story.) And the union would say it is most assuredly about the whole workforce; otherwise, it wouldn't fight so hard to retain things like the mid-level exception and Bird rights for free agents.
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72 -- Days that the Humphries-Kardashian nuptuals lasted before ending. I have no further comment.
135 -- Number of NBA players, out of 450, who would have to sign a petition that would authorize a vote for an involuntary decertification of the National Basketball Players Association. Labor rules require 30 percent of a union's members have to sign a petition to authorize a vote; if 50 percent of the entire membership votes to decertify, the union is dissolved.
129 -- Days since the lockout began.
1) Twenty years since Nov. 7, 1991. Wow.
2) I don't know what the issues are surrounding Issue 14 in Akron and I don't care. Just glad to see LeBron James getting involved in something that doesn't involve pick and rolls. I guarantee you he won't disappear after sticking a toe in the political waters.
3) Doggone lockout travel/reporting/writing/TV stuff last week has kept me from seeing "Unguarded," the Chris Herren documentary on ESPN that premiered on Tuesday. I hear it's incredible. Can't wait to see it..
4) The 7-year-old, at soccer practice, found himself with the ball in the box, turned and shot. He was trying to pass it. It rolled into the net. I danced.
5) Not sure it was the Game of the Century, but as 9-6 games go, LSU-'Bama wasn't the worst game I've seen. Mighty good defenses on both sides.
1) Come on, you didn't actually have any hope that Saturday was going to lead to a deal or something, did you? And so, we are at the tipping point now, because the players will either accept this last offer from the league, or the league will pull it back, and there will be no going back once the two sides start getting further apart in their offers rather than closer. That is when the decertification forces will win, because the union will have no other choice, and we will spend the next couple of years in court, and the 2011-12 season will soon die. That's where we are, folks. It will be over, one way or another, in the next few days.
2) I bet The Prokhorov choked on his corn flakes a little after reading this post from D-Will (scroll down to the last item, "If And Only If," to read the salient item about Williams' living arrangements in Jersey.
3) Don't know what this means in the big picture of the lockout, but I thought it was sadly interesting.
4) Praying for you, Smokin' Joe.
50/50 sound good to me whats the problem. It's church money away
-- Cavaliers forward Samardo Samuels (@samardo24), Monday, 8:05 p.m., expressing a view on the split of Basketball Related Income that one suspects many other players share.
"Basketball is my passion, but professional basketball is a business."
-- California businessman Alex Meruelo -- who, until Friday, was the new owner of the Atlanta Hawks. But the proposed sale of the team from its current group owners, Atlanta Spirit, to Meruelo -- who would have been the first Latino owner in the NBA -- fell through after the league and Meruelo could not agree on a financial structure for his purchase of the team that would have provided enough liquidity for him to cover additional losses.
"There were some things that were said that I won't really get into. It was kind of bashing Phil Jackson, that I just refused to just sit and listen to. And that's when I said, 'Hey, I love Phil Jackson. I appreciate everything that we've all been able to accomplish under him. We've all prospered since he's been the coach here.' "
-- Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw, in a great story this week on SI.com, detailing his meeting with Lakers' brass when he interviewed for the head coaching job in L.A. last summer. The Lakers hired ex-Cavs coach Mike Brown instead of Shaw, who most people around the league thought was a shoo-in to replace Jackson.
"I had no idea who they were. They tried out just like any other family."
-- Gaby Johnston, executive producer of "Family Feud," whose game show featured the Paul family of Winston-Salem this week: parents Robin and Charles, Robin's sister Rhonda Richardson, their son C.J. and his brother, Chris, who plays a little basketball. Alas, the Pauls lost a squeaker to the O'Hara Family, 358-70.
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