I was on the phone with my editor at the time, talking about the mindless things writers and editors talk about, when I heard.
"Magic Johnson says he is HIV positive and will retire from the NBA," my editor said.
His tone never changed as he read this off the wire. It came without the "Oh my gosh" or "You aren't going to believe this," one would expect to proceed such an announcement. He just read it as it appeared on his computer screen, as if he was repeating a list of weekly assignments.
"Magic Johnson is HIV positive."
Twenty years later I can feel the sudden chill of a warm afternoon turned cold. The moment remains locked in my mind; from the smoothness of the phone receiver, to the way the blinds were pulled three-quarters of the way up the window of the small house I rented on Connecticut's shore.
Never had 13 words seemed more improbable. Thinking of them now, they still do. No athlete seemed more alive than Magic. And my first thought as the editor read the bulletin was that we were going to watch the slow, steady shriveling of Magic Johnson. This was the beginning of the end, of course. Nobody lived long with HIV. That much we knew back then. Maybe it would be a few months, perhaps two years, but the decline was going to be fast. His face would sallow, his great body would wither. There would be living memorials. There would be a funeral.
And it would all happen before the decade was halfway gone.
"He is going to die! He is going to die!" I can still hear the AIDS activist shouting that night on TV. Of course he was going to die. HIV meant AIDS back then and AIDS meant a rapid and awful death. It was all we knew in a world where we didn't understand this disease that had seemed to come from nowhere but was filling in everywhere.
The last thing anyone could have expected was that two decades later, his story would be about life.
He not only didn't die, he became larger than ever.
In the town next to mine in the Washington suburbs, there is a Magic Johnson theatre. Sometimes when I am on Capitol Hill, I drop into a Magic Johnson Starbucks. I hear of Magic Johnson developments and Magic Johnson charities. On the Seattle night in 1999 when teargas from the WTO protests filled the air, I walked a few blocks to KeyArena where I sat a few rows behind Magic and Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz at a Sonics-Lakers game. Now there is talk he wants to buy a sports team.
Who knew he would last this long? Who knew he would be so big? To watch him now, dressed in suits, his body larger than in his basketball days yet robust with his face a healthy glow, it's as if he will live forever. He is 52 now, middle aged, at the point where many of his contemporaries walk with limps and aching backs. The irony is they too expected Magic to be gone by now and yet he is the one who is lively and robust, the one who is doing things.
I got in my car and drove that day he announced he had HIV. My thoughts were a jumble, a knot tightened in my stomach. I was just 24 and in my first newspaper job, a place where breaking news is supposed to send you skittering to the computer. Today we are more accustomed to these kinds of things. We live on a diet of breaking news feeds, sucked in by the scrolling red bar that comes many times a day bearing the promise of altering our world. But the bar comes so fast now, each bulletin shouting something big: Death! Verdict! Upset!
No announcement before or since has knocked me flat the way that one did. My guess is there are dozens in this business who would say the same thing. Eventually, seeking solace, I found myself at a church basketball court where I sometimes played. A friend, a Celtics fan, dressed in his Larry Bird jersey, held his wrists limp and swished flamboyantly: "I'm Magic!" he shouted, prancing about.
The rest of us stared, our faces filled with disgust. How could you be a fan? How could you love the game and act like that?
And look at Magic Johnson now. How silly our worry, our pain, our scorn.
He's survived that day's worst thoughts and fears.
In the end, that's the biggest news of all.