AN AMERICAN VIEW

The dishonesty of a magical life

Magic Johnson must admit that his greatest mistake was in not paying attention—in believing that the rules did not apply to him

FRED BRUNING December 9 1991
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The dishonesty of a magical life

Magic Johnson must admit that his greatest mistake was in not paying attention—in believing that the rules did not apply to him

FRED BRUNING December 9 1991

The dishonesty of a magical life

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Let’s get real about Magic Johnson. Apparently a gracious and engaging man, the former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player nevertheless behaved with astonishing disregard in this precarious age and, having contracted the AIDS virus, faces certain death. All the talk on radio and TV call-in shows about Magic beating the odds is dangerous nonsense. Magic Johnson is going to die, and if the breaks don’t fall his way, he could perish sooner than anyone wants to think.

Undetermined at this point is whether Johnson infected any of the women who he says eagerly served as sexual partners. So far, his wife, Cookie, is said to have tested negative— very good news. After revealing he was ill, Johnson said, he offered to leave the household, but Cookie dismissed the idea by slapping him “upside the head.” One might have understood if Cookie Johnson’s poke was more than just playful. The couple had been married only six weeks and she was going to have a baby.

Elsewhere, many a tense and angry word must have passed between athlete and wife or sweetheart since Johnson's disclosure. Prevailing rules of engagement demand that the male athlete be allowed maximum access to ardent women who find big-league bodies—and bankrolls—enticing. Former basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain now is peddling a book in which he claims to have had sex with 20,000— no misprint, 20,000!—female admirers. It’s a wonder the poor man had strength remaining to lace his sneakers let alone intimidate the opposition. Something special, that Wilt.

Women in long-term relationships with athletes may not be amused by Chamberlain’s scorekeeping, nor are they apt to dismiss the Johnson episode as just another overhyped celebrity story replete—pathos aside—with hero worship, machismo and tabloid gossip. On the chance they didn’t know before, women now understood their guys could be carrying

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

Magic Johnson must admit that his greatest mistake was in not paying attention—in believing that the rules did not apply to him

home a lot more than luggage from those long road trips.

Abruptly, the good old days seemed over. Byron Scott, a Lakers guard who knocked around with Johnson when the team was travelling, said that his wife feared for her health and immediately demanded that Scott confine his hustling to the court. “It was like, ‘If you were, you’d better not anymore.’ ” Scott recalled. “I was like, ‘Don’t worry.’ ” Fidelity isn’t the easiest topic to address at the kitchen table. Conversations about sex and loyalty can hurt and embarrass. For athletes and everyone else in late-century America, however, no discussions are more important. Honesty is the only hope.

Moral rearmament? Forget it. Sexual practices change and then change again, and it is folly to wax outraged and indignant about deteriorating values, loose living, profligate habits—the same tedious blah, blah, blah that served evangelical preachers in good stead until Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart demonstrated just how weak the flesh could be. Americans like sex and so, quite naturally, we got drunk on it. We plastered it on billboards and magazine covers and newspaper ads, everywhere. That’s how we do things—very

large. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and we sober up a bit. What happened this time was Magic Johnson.

Beyond concerns associated with public health, Johnson’s illness raises other questions—about how we treat one another, how we use information, how we Americans, perhaps more than others, persist in seeing ourselves as invincible and curiously impervious to the unfailing logic of cause and effect. AIDS has been a scourge in the United States for 10 years, and though first viewed as a danger mainly to gay men and intravenous drug users, the disease soon enough was declared a risk to heterosexuals, too. Sleep with a stranger and you sleep with everyone he or she ever went to bed with. Nothing could be simpler. Some people became very careful. Others yawned. AIDS? Hey, not me.

Remember, we are high rollers. Look at Louisiana, this fellow David Duke. Here is a man who once paraded around like Hitler’s lost son and served as imperial nudnick of the Ku Klux Klan. Most everything that comes out of his mouth is inaccurate or misleading. He has no more an idea how to run a government than he did the KKK, not exactly one of your highimpact organizations, and the substance of his political message is that white people are getting a bad deal while all the cushy executive jobs, the 12-bedroom houses, the Ivy League acceptances, the country club memberships and the private airplanes are going to blacks.

Though Duke carried the white vote, he lost his bid for the governorship. Still, it is remarkable that in Louisiana—or anywhere—such a fellow could gain the support of more than a few idiot cousins. But this is America, land of the free, home of the dense. We do not pay attention. In one generation, we have ourselves a George Wallace. In the next, we invent a David Duke. Nearly half his campaign contributions came from out of state, and now Duke says he might run for president. Get ready.

The ascendancy of Duke, the demise of Magic Johnson are warning signals—not from the cosmos, no way, but from the centre of our shared existence. Sooner or later, we Americans must better learn to sense the common danger—to pull back from the limits before executing that final, fatal nudge.

If he accepts the idea, Magic Johnson can make a difference. President Bush put him on a national AIDS council, and that is nice, but not likely to accomplish much. What Johnson must do is reveal all the facts of his own case—no use being squeamish—and, more to the point, he must tell Americans, especially kids, that his greatest mistake was in not paying attention, in disregarding information, in believing, like so many of his countrymen, that the rules did not apply to him.

You want to mess around while a plague is burning through the country, you very well might die. You might die, your wife might die, your baby might die. That’s the fact, like it or not. Similarly, you want to trifle with a Nazi, with a professional race-hater, you’re asking for trouble, big time. Throw caution to the wind, better remember to duck. It could come back and slap you upside the head.