`Magic' Johnson Sizes Up His Life

Superstar's autobiography recounts the glitter and the shadows

EARVIN (Magic) Johnson was a bridge between worlds. He was the all-star point guard in a rangy forward's body, the homeboy from Lansing, Mich., who became prince of "Showtime" at the Los Angeles Forum, the gritty basketball fundamentalist who helped turn the pro sport into hype city.

Then he announced that he was HIV positive. It was hard not to admire the way Johnson stood up and revealed this bitter fact. But it was also hard not to suspect a darker side to the NBA's glitter.

Just how did Johnson get HIV, anyway? Was he secretly gay? What made him a hero, compared with the thousands of others who have been diagnosed with HIV?

"My Life" is Johnson's (and his publicist's) attempt to answer these questions. It is neither very good nor very bad, as sports biographies go. It is not an embarrassment, like Larry Bird's "Drive," which reads like a letter home from a taciturn summer-camper. But neither does Johnson show the insight and self-awareness that his teammate Kareem Abdul Jabbar brought to "Giant Steps." Johnson's childhood is engaging; his sexual exploits are recounted with modesty.

But in the end, he comes across as a dedicated athlete and good fellow who believed in his own aura a little too much.

Until Los Angeles, there's an almost 1950s normality to Johnson's tale. He grew up in Lansing with six brothers and sisters in a stable working-class home. His father worked the night shift at Fisher Body and hauled trash during the day (with Earvin's help on weekends). His mother was a school custodian and cafeteria worker. Johnson was a plugger. He spent two summers in summer school to get his grades up to par.

Success didn't come easy, but it came remarkably fast: state championship at high school, then at Michigan State University. He joined the Los Angeles Lakers at age 20, and promptly carried them to a championship, too, with more to follow.

Very quickly, "Magic" was to L.A. what "Babe" had been to New York City decades before. Movie stars and high rollers flocked to the Forum, a little the way whites had frequented Harlem nightclubs in the '20s. To a remarkable degree, Magic kept his head through all this. He invested his money wisely, was close to his family, stayed away from drugs and drink. He never lost the exuberance and single-minded intensity that made fans feel like kids.

But Johnson lived in a celebrity cocoon: best buddies with Arsenio Hall, trips to Maui on a whim. Off the court, life bent to Magic, rather than vice versa. Women fell over him, wherever he went; and he was only too happy to oblige. Johnson's account of this side of his NBA life, tempered as it is, must have the NBA flacks squirming in their chairs. Johnson was not alone in these adventures, and he might not be alone in the consequences, either.

One wishes Johnson were a little more reflective, on this and other matters. He says he refrained on game days, and that he treated his women well.

That's all fine. But does he have second thoughts, say, about the NBA's commercial circus and bloated pay levels that feed this life style and that he helped create? What if he hadn't gotten HIV? Would he think everything is OK?

It might have helped if Johnson had waited to tell his story until after his much-publicized comeback attempt this fall. That attempt ended with a searing disappointment: Johnson got a small cut on his arm during a pre-season game, and the other players recoiled in horror.

Magic, the golden one, had become a pariah in his own land. This rejection might have jolted him out of the role of diplomat for the NBA, and added some poignant edge.

The giant in these pages is Johnson's wife, Cookie, whom he wisely permits to speak with her own voice. For 14 years, Cookie suffered from Johnson's broken engagements and wandering eye. Then, two months after they married, while she was carrying his child, he came home and announced he had HIV.

She refused to leave him. She had seen the Earvin through the Magic. Now she persists in seeing him through the grim, menacing shadows of AIDS. That Magic Johnson finally chose this woman to be his wife says more about him than anything he ever did with a basketball. He knows it.

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