Wiping the smile off the face of athletes

Originally Published: November 7, 2001
By Kevin Ball | ESPN.com

Earvin "Magic" Johnson always had a way of making people feel good about themselves with his smile. Seemingly could turn every day sunny and 75 degrees with that smile. Made millions of dollars with that smile.

Earvin 'Magic' Johnson & Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Magic Johnson's retirement 10 years ago stunned the world, but it likely hit closest to home for so many athletes who have enjoyed the spoils of their success.
It said so much without him having to say anything at all: Fame. Fortune. Champion.

It represented even more: Hopes. Dreams. And the promise that every wish could come true.

But ask people today about Magic and they don't smile. Ask them about that day, 10 years ago today, and nothing. Because there was nothing to smile about when Magic delivered the most important message of his life on Nov. 7, 1991, the day he told the world he was retiring from professional basketball because he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He explained that he likely had done so because of his promiscuous lifestyle as a well-traveled, popular athlete. That the temptations that fell upon him because of his celebrity were too overwhelming to resist.

"This is one of those things you think can't happen to you, but it can," he said. "Sometimes you're a little nave about it and think it can never happen to you. You think it can happen to only other people.

"Well, I'm here to say it can happen to anyone. Even me, Magic Johnson."

That sad message was delivered around the world, but perhaps hit closest to home for professional athletes who have walked so many miles in his shoes. Those with voracious appetites for conquests, both on and off the court. Those with impulses, like Magic's, too strong to quell.

While Gatorade had begun peddling its sports drink by telling everyone to "Be Like Mike," Magic was warning everybody of the dangers of being like him. Though it lacked the catchy Jordan jingle, the message was delivered to athletes with a cold, sobering slap of reality. But do they remember it today?

"I don't think so," says Byron Scott, who won three of the Lakers' five NBA championships with Magic on the team.

How soon they forget

"Because of HIV that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today."

Scott spent 11 seasons of his 14-year playing career with the Lakers, the first 10 during the team's "Showtime" era, and later again as an unofficial player-coach during the 1996-97 season, Shaquille O'Neal's first with the team.

Scott is now head coach of the New Jersey Nets, a young team whose players are an average 25 years old and have less than four seasons of NBA experience. Not even one of his players was in the league back in 1991. And two -- rookies Brandon Armstrong and Richard Jefferson -- were but 11 years old then.

"I think the first month or two when Earvin came out -- just probably like every other athlete, thinking that it couldn't happen to them and then happens to the greatest player to play the game -- I think everybody at that time focused in on being a little bit more careful," Scott told ESPN.

"But now, watching a lot of the guys that come up in this league now, I think it's almost back to where it was 15, 20 years ago."

Anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest likewise. Salacious headlines of athletes caught with their pants down continue to pop up in the 10 years since Magic's announcement.

Gold Club
Professional athletes were regulars of the backrooms of the Gold Club strip joint in Atlanta.
  • In 1996, it was the "white house" scandal. The house was neither in Washington, D.C., nor was it white. But the name stuck nonetheless when it was learned that several Cowboys players reportedly had shared the expenses of a large rental house in suburban Dallas for weekly trysts with women and to do drugs.

  • In 1999, it was Eugene Robinson, then an Atlanta Falcons defensive back and a self-professed Christian, arrested for soliciting prostitution the night before the Falcons played the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.

  • And earlier this year, there was the Gold Club trial in which several well-known NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball players testified about the escapades that frequented the backrooms of the Atlanta strip club.

    "I go to sleep at night worrying about my clients," sports agent Drew Rosenhaus told the Miami Herald's Dan Le Batard in 1996. "It's scary. I know guys who juggle three or four women a night. Women can be as addictive as drugs or alcohol, and the supply is never ending."

    In a 1992 interview on ABC's "Primetime Live," Magic talked about his own private life behind closed bedroom doors. Recounting tales of living out his fantasies, Magic said he often shared himself in orgies with multiple women, as many as six in one night.

    Of course, that was before he carried the virus that one day could become AIDS, a disease that leaves only death in its wake. Life has since changed for Magic. As it has for those who chose to listen to him.

    "It changed me," Lakers forward Rick Fox said. "I think back to college and the early 90s. I was single, had money, I was dating. As an athlete, you think you're invincible. It brought to light how human we are."

    Shawn Kemp
    Shawn Kemp is said to have fathered seven children out of wedlock with six separate women.
    But in a survey of several recent and current NBA players, coaches, and team and league officials by ESPN and ESPN.com, the subject of whether Magic's message is still being heard was not always an agreeable topic.

    "I care not to even touch that subject," said Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning.

    "I don't know," Heat coach Pat Riley said with a laugh. "I don't go home with them. I don't go out to clubs with them."

    "I would imagine so," was all Portland Trail Blazer forward Shawn Kemp would muster for an answer.

    Kemp was a subject in a 1998 Sports Illustrated article on professional athletes fathering children out-of-wedlock. In the article, Kemp is said to have had seven children with six different women and had been the subject of at least one paternity suit.

    A message worth repeating

    "I want young people to realize safe sex is the way to go."

    In none of the scandalous sex stories is it clear whether any of the athletes had heeded Magic's warning to practice safe sex. Such sordid details were never revealed.

    But to get players to heed that warning, some say it must be repeated. Again. And again.

    "As the league gets younger, those things need to be reiterated," said Samaki Walker, a reserve forward with the Lakers. "It's one of those situations in which you need to bring it up over and over again. Magic wants to move on with his life, but it's important that the issue not die down."

    The NBA -- as similarly does the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball -- addresses the issue with its rookie players during its Rookie Transition Program. Before they are taught the nuances of complicated offensive and defensive schemes by NBA teams, they are given advise for mapping out a game plan on how to live their lives off the court.

    Like Magic's message 10 years ago, the symposium can be a wake-up call for some of the league's youngest and widest-eyed players. With the recent influx of early entry players, some of whom are drafted by NBA teams straight out of high school, the message has taken on added importance.

    "Like so many other things, we have to either go to or return to a time of individual responsibility and there are none so unfortunate as those who will not learn," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "But that can only be their issue.

    "You lay the information out there. You reinforce it. You reinforce it some more. And then people have to be responsible for the way in which they behave and conduct themselves," he said.

    To help drive that message home, the league doesn't just tell its players to be careful, to practice safe sex, to avoid intravenous drugs. It shows them why.

    And presentation, to be sure, is the key.

    "They brought this beautiful lady up there and she said 'I have HIV,' " Walker recalls of the symposium he attended five years ago. "That woke a lot of us up because she didn't look like it. Just goes to show you that it's not just a look; people could have it and you'd never know."

    The other message

    "I'm going to miss it. I'm going to miss coming in at 5 o'clock (before games), saying hello to the security people, the ushers. Getting to see you guys (reporters) at 6 o'clock: 'Magic, what about this? What about that?' I'll miss it. I'll miss the battles and the wars, but most of all I'll miss the camaraderie with the guys."

    That another athlete has not yet followed in Magic's footsteps to the podium is not necessarily reason to believe that his message has shown today's players the ills of a self-indulgent, off-the-court lifestyle.

    BY THE (RULE)BOOK
    Boxing
    Though boxing has no national governing body, several state athletic commissions require that a boxer be tested for HIV before obtaining a license. In Nevada, such testing is required annually. In most cases, if a boxer receives a medical suspension in one state for testing positive for HIV, other states' commission will honor it. Most states have no specific trainer guidelines for handling blood or blood-related injuries, though trainers and referees often wear latex gloves during matches.

    National Collegiate
    Athletic Association
    Mandatory testing of athletes is not recommended, though a student-athlete wishing to be tested can be given assistance, according the NCAA's Sports Medicine Handbook. It also addresses tips for trainers and coaches in handling blood, as well as an introduction to the administrative issues involved when a student-athlete with HIV wishes to participate in intercollegiate athletics. A student-athlete may participate in competition if given medical clearance by both a personal and team physician.

    National Basketball Association
    When a player suffers a laceration or wound in which bleeding occurs, the game is stopped and the player is forced to leave the court for treatment. In cases where blood is found on the court or on the ball or a jersey, the game is stopped so the blood can be cleaned up. Trainers are instructed to wear latex gloves when dealing with blood. The league does not require athletes to be tested for HIV.

    National Hockey League
    Much like the NFL, the NHL's HIV policy takes its cues for handling blood and blood-related injuries from OSHA, though a league spokesman said its policies exceed those requirements. Through the NHL and the NHLPA's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, players have access to HIV testing. In addition, various doctors and administrators speak to players with all 30 teams each season regarding HIV prevention.

    National Football League
    In handling blood and blood-related injuries, the National Football League follows the guidelines for medical professionals set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, the league educates its players, coaches and trainers during training camp and the leagues rookie symposium. The league does not mandate HIV testing of its players.

    Major League Baseball
    Major League Baseball neither has a formal policy on handling blood in the event of an injury nor does it require on HIV testing. A league spokesman said such provisions are left up to each individual team.

    -- Wayne Drehs

    As many as 900,000 people in the United States are believed to be living with HIV, and nearly half a million people have died of the AIDS-related complications since the disease was discovered in the early 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control data. Worldwide, the disease has claimed the lives of nearly 22 million people.

    An estimated 1 in 300 Americans are believed to be living with either HIV or AIDS.

    So consider that there are 348 players active on NBA team rosters today. In the NFL, there are 1,560; and in the NHL, another 660. With their expanded 40-man rosters, there were 1,200 players on major-league teams at regular season's end.

    And not one has come forward to say that he, too, has contracted HIV. Or worse: AIDS.

    "Either no one else in professional sports is HIV-positive, or everyone has learned a very important lesson: Don't tell, or you could lose your career," Michael Mellman, the former Lakers' team physician, told the Los Angeles Times.

    Despite continuing education on how HIV is transmitted from person to person, the truth is a stigma, both in society and on the court, still comes attached with the virus. It would seem understandable that a player with much of his career still ahead of him might be hesitant to make another such bold pronouncement.

    Said Brad Daugherty, the former Cleveland Cavaliers center: "The first thing that popped into my mind, I said, 'Well, how?' The next thing is, 'Well, if he has it, who else has it?"

    The chances of finding the answer to that question seems remote after players watched Magic struggle to regain acceptance on the court when he came out of retirement in the NBA in 1992 and again in 1996.

    "People sort of stayed away from him for a short period of time," Lon Rosen, Magic's former agent, said. "People didn't know much about this disease. They thought by shaking your hand or breathing your air you can get this disease, and it bothered Earvin. I knew it bothered him."

    Supplying players with information, it is hoped, will help them to make educated decisions. But whether another player steps forward to replace Magic at the podium remains a question unanswered.

    "How do you transmit it? How you can get it? Can you get it playing basketball? A lot of these questions weren't answered when Magic retired, but now the questions are answered and the guys are a lot more informed in the NBA," Heat guard Kendall Gill said. "So I think it's a lot more-safer lifestyle and we all have to take safer precautions. And I think we've all done that, and I think that's why you haven't seen anything else like that in the NBA.

    "Hopefully," he said, "you'll never see it again."

    Something to smile about

    "It's another challenge, another chapter in my life. You're back is against the wall. I think you have to come out swinging. And I'm swinging."

    The smile is back for Magic.

    The frustration of his early retirement as a player is now behind him. With his wife, Cookie, he now has three children while remaining active as a spokesperson for those touched by either HIV or AIDS. He also has become a successful entrepreneur by focusing his business interests on catering to the long-neglected inner city.

    "I can turn something that was so negative into something that has been positive, and by coming out in public, I thought that helped a lot of people," Magic told ESPN last week. "What I try to do is help educate all people about what this is about. That you can hug and kiss someone, high-five them, treat them the way you treated them before, don't discriminate against people who have HIV and AIDS. That's what this has got to be about."

    Perhaps this is the final lesson to be learned from that day 10 years ago. Perhaps it will become his lasting legacy, though a place is being made for him at the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

    "Now we don't whisper about this anymore. Remember, we used to whisper -- HIV, AIDS," Magic said, his hand cupped to his mouth. "Now we talk openly about it. So a lot has changed and I think a lot of progress has taken -- even the NBA and all the other leagues (that) have been educating -- because before when I made my comeback remember, everyone was, oh, I don't want to play against him.

    "And that hurt me. That hurt me."

    Indeed, Magic's life would have been different had he not contracted HIV. But his life, he said, would not necessarily be better.

    "I think I wouldn't be the voice of the people. I cared then, but I care more now," he said. "I wouldn't say (I'm) a better person, just a more caring person and a more well-rounded person."

    And supposedly, too, are the people who heard his message 10 years ago.

    Kevin Ball is a senior editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at kevin.ball@espn.com.

    ESPN staff writers Tom Farrey and Wayne Drehs, and ESPN's David Aldridge and Jeremy Schaap contributed to this report.

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