The sports world is full of hyperbole and overblown clichés. Full of moments described by fans or commentators as if they were matters of life or death. Feats of great athletes are lauded as life changing events, but then the moment passes and in cold light of day the reality sinks in. It’s just a game, it’s entertainment, win or lose life goes on. Very, very occasionally there is a moment in sports that transcends the game to become a defining moment for society. One that takes on more not less significance as time passes.
Feb. 9th 1992 in Orlando, Florida was one such moment.
Three months after shocking the world with the announcement he had the HIV virus and would retire from the Lakers immediately, 11-time All-Star, Earvin “Magic” Johnson jogged onto the floor of Orlando Arena to a standing ovation that would not stop.
As he stood there acknowledging the fans that had voted him to the 42nd All-Star game without playing a minute of the season, long time rival and close friend Isiah Thomas walked across the court and embraced him. From that moment it was clear this night was going to be magic.
The stat line of the game shows Magic put on an MVP performance, 25 points and nine assists in 29 minutes but what I remember is a man with something to prove to himself and to the world. HIV was supposed to be a death sentence and yet here was Magic still dishing no-look passes, still draining threes and still having as much fun as anyone who’s ever set foot on an NBA court.
As the game wound down, a blowout in favor of Magic’s Western stars, it was like he was trying to encapsulate his stellar career in the space of two minutes. There was the perfect pass to Dan Majerle; the back-to-back defensive stops; the three ball with four ticks left in the game -- then the biggest smile in the league got a little bigger.
Magic didn’t know what challenges HIV would present as he walked away from the game but the world now knew this was something that could be faced, the virus now had a face and that face would keep smiling.