At the corner of Washington and Ionia streets, in the city of Lansing, Michigan, there was a grand old movie house called the Gladmer Theater. Growing up on Middle Street, in a small auto-boom frame house, temple of the tiny dreams, you lived in a world that extended north as far as the freeway and south as far as the Oldsmobile plant. But slip off to the side, down Logan to Washington and into the Gladmer, and the world seemed to crack open. There in the dark, you could curl up in the balcony’s deep shadows and feel the place come alive in bursts of golden wonder. You could duck in at noon and stay the whole day. Early Seventies movies—Godzilla taking down Osaka, and the new black cinema of the day. Richard Roundtree and Billy Dee. Jim Brown and Ron O’Neal, Superfly so very sharp. You’d be sharp, too, if Curtis Mayfield did your music. New stars but the same old dreams. They were selling the old Hollywood there, and if you bought it, you bought it right down to your bones. Life as performance. Performance as life. Walk into the Gladmer and your life didn’t dead-end at the Oldsmobile plant anymore.
Earvin Johnson, Jr. would save up the money he earned cleaning yards and shoveling snow and helping Earvin senior on the garbage truck. He’d buy his ticket and stay all day, walking blinking out into the summer twilight or wide-eyed into the winter gloom. “They didn’t kick you out until five o’clock,” he recalls today. “You could stay and watch the movie two or three times. But those were the times, man. And that was why I wanted to meet these people, to get to know them.” He bought the old Hollywood dream, not knowing that it was a dream straight out of movies that had played the Gladmer long before he was born. Old musicals and Tinseltown melodrama. Kid, some day, all this will be yours.
According to popular belief, Magic Johnson was created when a sportswriter named Fred Stabley thought that Earvin Johnson, Jr. wasn’t a sufficiently respectful nom de hoop for the effervescent young player at Everett High School. Truth be told, though, Magic Johnson was born on those afternoons long ago when Earvin Johnson, Jr. tucked himself into the balcony shadows and watched his dreams explode like skyrockets around him. It is the essential dichotomy of his life. It will one day be the essential dichotomy of his death.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” he muses. “There was Earvin, but it was Magic who wanted to be a part of that Hollywood life. Magic is the side where you go to Hollywood and live that Hollywood life and so forth.” They were not compatible, Earvin and Magic. Not even in the same person. Where Earvin was eager to be loved, Magic throve on adulation, which is not the same thing at all. Earvin was the happy one, the joyful child who had worked so hard to be the conciliator within his family when his mother threw herself into a new and unyielding religion, the teenager who had made the best of being bused to the predominantly white Everett High, far across town. Magic did the premiers and the clubs. He hung with Eddie and Arsenio, and he signed autographs for the pretty people who came to the Forum to see the Los Angeles Lakers play.
They were coming for him. That was the marvel of it. There were Thirties-style Hollywood parties, but with the heedless edge of Eighties consumption. There were fine women and more than enough opportunities, and Magic Johnson was one of the biggest stars in town. “I’m living a dream,” he remembers. “I’m from Lansing, Michigan. I mean, here I am in Hollywood, and so I was living not just for myself but for a lot of my friends back home, ’cause I would always tell them, man, I met Ali. I met Stallone. I met, you know, Richard Pryor. I know Eddie. I would always call back, and they were living through me. Man, I’d tell my friends that so-and-so talked to me. I said, ‘Wow!’ They would run over and ask me for my autograph. That’s what shocked me the most. I was in awe of the movie stars sitting on the court.”
In his mind, Earvin watched it all unfold before him as though he were at once the audience and the actor, as though he were still in the Gladmer, still curled up there deep in the balcony shadows, an odd and lingering distance now come between himself and the movie that his life had become. The movie rolled through the five NBA titles with the Lakers in the 1980s, picking up supporting characters along the way: Larry Bird; teammates like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy; sudden, intense rivals like Michael Jordan. Eddie. Arsenio. Luther Vandross, singing just for him. It was as though Magic were another John Shaft, another Superfly. Performance as life. Life as performance. Earvin watched as his life was hijacked by its own public creation.
Earvin was serious. Earvin had goals. Earvin was going to be a businessman—a tycoon, really. In a town full of players, Earvin was going to be respected as a Player.
“Don’t call me Magic,” Johnson once told a woman. “Only people who don’t know me call me Magic. People who really know me call me Earvin.”
It could not go on, this bow-tight interplay between two incompatible personas. Earvin could not function credibly as a kind of free-floating alibi for Magic’s lifestyle, and Magic was not willing to submit to Earvin’s control. The knowledge that the other existed made each of them insecure. In basketball, for example, it was Magic who threw the blind passes and orchestrated Showtime, that resolutely L.A. phenomenon that owed far more to the Village People than it did to James Naismith. But Earvin was the solid player, schooled so truly in his own unique fundamentals that he could see the game three or four moves ahead. Earvin was serious. Earvin had goals. Earvin was going to be a businessman—a tycoon, really. In a town full of players, Earvin was going to be respected as a Player.
There was a terrible pulling and hauling, an awful straining beneath the shallow artifice of celebrity, and an unstated demand that Earvin be taken more seriously than he could be within the glittery caul that was Magic’s life. They could function within the context of the NBA and within the context of pure fame. But they were not prepared, either of them, to work together in the consuming crisis of their lives.
It is a vast story now, sliding inexorably toward the epic. When Johnson announced on November 7, 1991, that he had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, the apparent cause of AIDS, he first let Magic do the talking. It was an up performance. He even spoke vaguely of beating the disease, which is plainly impossible. “Bᴇʟɪᴇᴠᴇ ɪɴ Mᴀɢɪᴄ,” said the T-shirts. And at the start, it seemed that it might work. Society appeared to suspend briefly the malicious notion that there are guilty and innocent victims of this disease. When it was rumored that the various companies whose products Johnson endorsed were considering dropping him from their commercials, the ensuing public outcry seemed like a benediction.
Society has allowed itself its AIDS saints—Elizabeth Glaser, say. Or the late Ryan White. But both of them had contracted HIV in a socially acceptable manner: to wit, accidentally, through tainted blood products. Since Johnson openly admitted that he’d become infected through unprotected sexual congress, the early, positive reaction to his announcement suggested that he would be the AIDS saint who could eliminate this final stigma. He would be more than merely an example. His life with the virus would be his witness, his public testimony. Performance as life, and life as performance.
Forgotten for the moment was not only the long history of how the world reacts during times of plague but also the recent, sorry history of how the world has reacted to this particular one. Forgotten was the fact that the lives of saints are not the rosy, sanitized versions that make it into the prayer books and onto the movie screen. Saints are terribly inconvenient. They often make trouble. They often make people look very foolish. After all, Ryan White first became famous because some people in Indiana tried to keep him from going to school. Nevertheless, it was contended that Magic’s inimitable persona would be enough to crack open the formidable collusion between unreasoning fear and moralistic stupidity that had attended this epidemic. So loud and universal was this contention that a number of uncomfortable personal truths were swept aside—most notable, that his attitude toward women caused him to treat them as (at best) a disposable commodity.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know how people were going to react. I didn’t know until you actually got into it and really saw how people were treated who had the virus, or who already had AIDS.”
The performance closed quickly. Magic went on The Arsenio Hall Show, and he was loudly applauded for declaring himself “far from being a homosexual.” Gay activists threw that back in his face, and a dying AIDS patient named Derek Hodel read him off at a meeting of the national AIDS commission in January 1992. Johnson was learning on the fly about the ambiguities of the disease he had contracted. He did a kids’ show about AIDS for Nickelodeon, a gentle, Earvin-like show that was very well received. He played in last year’s NBA All-Star Game, and his smile on the victory stand remains the enduring image from last summer’s Olympics.
What remained plain, however, was the fact that he never understood the public ramifications of his condition. “It’s funny,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know how people were going to react. I didn’t know until you actually got into it and really saw how people were treated who had the virus, or who already had AIDS.” It was out there, however, waiting for him, the human reflex that was born on the day Genghis Khan introduced the flea-bitten rats of East Asia to those of the Balkans. A decade later, a third of Europe was dead, and the survivors were blaming the Jews and burning them alive in their synagogues.
Not quite a year after his upbeat press conference, there was another one, and Johnson wasn’t even there. He is gone from the game for good now, his comeback aborted by those same forces that the public witness of his life was supposed to eliminate. Players spoke openly of being afraid to guard him too closely, even though they are at far greater risk of dying every time they climb on the team plane. There were renewed rumors about how he had acquired the virus. He wrote an autobiography, in which he discussed his baroque extracurricular sex life, and then undertook a huge publicity tour, on which it seemed he was defending himself against charges of bisexuality by pleading satyriasis.
The woman to whom he had once said “Only people who don’t know me call me Magic” was suing him for $2 million, alleging that it was Johnson who’d passed the virus on to her. That Johnson did not attend his second retirement is not surprising. The comeback had been a performance by Magic, a headlong dive for the spotlight, and it had become plain that Magic now scared people. Too many of them had been living Magic’s life themselves—still are, truth be told—and they didn’t need him out there as the great golem of antibody roulette. That would be just too frightening. So Magic wasn’t wanted anymore, and Earvin had the good sense to stay home.
“It would have been good, but not great,” he says of his attempt to return to play. “Because if I was Magic Johnson, it would’ve been great, see? That’s the difference. To show that somebody with HIV could not just play, because I can play. I can go back now and play. But I’m talking about somebody that did it and did it the way it’s supposed to be done. To be Magic Johnson, the guy that I was. You know, he’s a lot. He’s a lot of roles in one.”
There is a gravitas to him, pure Earvin-ness, and there is much more substance than perhaps even he has ever allowed. The smiles do not come as quick and as easily as they do on television when Oprah is billing and cooing and asking to see new pictures of the baby. Blue notes ring behind his words. “I lost the fun of it,” he says. “Fun makes me be Magic Johnson, the enthusiasm. That’s a big part of my game, and then that was taken away. I couldn’t use all my energy to play the game because I was using it all to explain myself.” He cannot be Magic the way he was, but he also cannot be Earvin, either, because Magic gave Earvin a fatal disease. Magic will want to go to Heaven while Earvin does the time in hell. It cannot work anymore.
Ultimately, he asked for too much and for too little. He wanted his normal life back, but his normal life is performance, and performance is life, and there was no part left for him. He forfeited the only role that was left for him to play, AIDS saint, because saints—even real ones—need constituencies as much as politicians do.
In Making Saints, journalist Kenneth Woodward chides the Catholic Church because, in choosing its saints, the Church forces itself “to exclude … any evidence of human failure; in doing so, [they] omit what is truly exemplary in the life of a saint—the struggle between virtue and vice or, in a wider scope, between grace and nature.” The real world is even less forgiving. Magic Johnson has not been what the world wanted him to be, and the world cannot seem to accept Earvin Johnson, Jr. for who he is. Our grace and his nature have gone to war.
“He who dies of epidemic disease is a martyr. When you learn that an epidemic disease exists in a country, do not go there; but if it breaks out in a country where you are, do not leave.”
According to Thucydides, a plague fell upon the Athenian Army during the first Peloponnesian War. Soldiers refused to bury the infected bodies of their comrades, and as the conventional religion of the day failed to provide either an explanation or relief, the men turned from the priests of the gods and sought intercession themselves, or else they turned away from the gods entirely. They ran riot, engaging in all manner of sensual excess. The living gave themselves up for dead. “Already a far heavier sentence … was hanging over a man’s head,” the historian reports. “Before that fell, why should he not take a little pleasure?”
Boccaccio writes that during the height of the Black Death in Europe, fathers would abandon their sons. Jews were suspected of poisoning the wells. In 1878, when yellow fever broke out in Memphis, people caught fleeing the city were hanged on sight by the hysterical residents of the surrounding towns. Today, there are undertakers who refuse to bury those whom AIDS has killed, and the disease has been variously described as God’s (or nature’s) revenge against the carnal and the wicked. When Earvin Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive, he was stepping into the middle of the inglorious history of human intolerance.
Of course, at the time, he knew less about the history than he knew even about his disease. By his own admission, he went through the 1980s unconcerned about AIDS. “I thought it was a homosexual thing,” he recalls. “It wasn’t even close to my mind. We knew it was out there, but I never thought it could affect me. In the circles I was around, it was oblivion.” Considering that those circles came to encompass the Hollywood show-business community, which was hit hard in the early stages of the epidemic, this is a formidable bit of denial, but not an uncommon one.
His professional success, however, was immediate and remarkable. It is now beyond cliché to say that Johnson (along with Bird) helped resuscitate professional basketball, which nearly drowned in the late 1970s, due to public apathy and a spate of nasty drug scandals. When Johnson entered the game, in 1979, he was a fresh and vibrant presence. In Johnson’s Lakers debut, Abdul-Jabbar won the game with a lordly hook shot, only to be seized in an ungainly embrace by the enthusiastic rookie guard. Pictures of the moment show the cool and elegant center looking quite amused, as though someone had just handed him a mackerel. What Johnson did for Abdul Jabbar, he did for the Lakers and, ultimately, for the entire NBA. Competitively, his Lakers and Bird’s Celtics were a matchup for the ages, and one that providentially took place in two large television markets. Moreover, before anyone else did, he saw the genius in the NBA’s attempt to market itself as a league—as a single entertainment entity. This succeeded wonderfully; the NBA was able to sell a largely black sport to a largely white audience, even during a decade in which racial relations worsened. Magic Johnson became a crossover hit.
By the time he got to the NBA, he had set the corporate class as his goal; he claimed to idolize Michael Ovitz, Hollywood’s king fixer, and now he employs him. Johnson himself has always sought to make things work, to cast the movie of his own life. In 1981, when he engineered the dismissal of Lakers Coach Paul Westhead—a good move, as it turns out, since it resulted in the hiring of Pat Riley—he was simply firing the director in order to get the story to come out right. He had learned quickly and well.
Perhaps Johnson thought he could finesse it. Perhaps he thought Magic could smile and wave and somehow beat the collective fear that has risen up in the face of epidemic disease over the past 2,500 years. But he was an uneasy saint.
As the Lakers prospered, Magic became one of the town’s most vivid performers. Academy Award winners paid him court. He’d made it at last. His life was performance, and performance was his life. Magic Johnson was the next best thing to a movie star.
The good life was a perquisite of his new station. At first, liberated L.A. amazed him. “I mean, you had women with no panties. Women with women,” he recalls. However, he soon lost whatever inhibitions he had brought with him, or (more likely) he simply parked them with Earvin and let Magic be Magic. The Lakers became notorious around the NBA, the Forum coming to be known as the league’s primary pleasure palace. Games at the Forum were glamorous affairs, forty-one Hollywood premieres a season. Lakers officials noted how often the same women’s names appeared on the list of complimentary tickets left by the players. In 1990, forward James Worthy was caught in a police sting operation while attempting to solicit two women from a Houston escort service.
By all accounts, Johnson was central to everything that went on. He helped entertain visiting players, showing the rookies the (you should pardon the expression) lay of the land. In his recently published autobiography, My Life, he claims that he once had sex in an elevator, another time in a boardroom, and he has also confessed to ménages à trois, quatre and six. At one point, sources say, the Lakers became so alarmed at Johnson’s sexual escapades that the team asked the league to step in. Through it all, though, he maintained his relationship with Earleatha “Cookie” Kelly, whom he had met in college, at Michigan State, and whom he eventually married, in September 1991.
He veers between caution and candor while discussing all of this. For example, he claims never to have slept all night with any woman except Cookie, as though that mitigates whatever guilt he may feel. He also seems to excuse promiscuity on the basis of good conversation.
“I think when you talk about [having] a lot of women, people think that’s all you’re doing,” he says. “I wasn’t, like, numbers, like a Wilt Chamberlain and thousands of women or whatever. It wasn’t even close to that. People don’t realize that I was friends with these women, not that I just went out and picked one up and that was it. See, I talked to them because I wanted to know what’s up here and, see, people are not getting that, so I guess they think it’s one night here and one night there and that was it, and it wasn’t like that at all.
“When it was time for them to go … because I’m a man, I couldn’t sleep with any of them. I couldn’t sleep with nobody but Cookie. So I said, you know, ‘You got to go,’ because I was, like, I didn’t trust them, you know? So they was, like, ‘Oh, you kicking me out?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you know I told you that before.’ So they didn’t understand.” It’s almost as if Magic picked up the women and left Earvin to do the explaining afterward. Later, when he was touring to support his book, he was roundly criticized for revealing as much as he did.
When Johnson announced his HIV status, in November 1991, the NBA shook briefly in its success. There is still that sub-rosa fear that white America responds unwillingly to a largely black sport and that any scandal would bring that odious dynamic back into play. Uncontrolled black male sexuality is one of this culture’s most durable racist myths. Indeed, it was the psychological underpinning of the whole system of segregation. The NBA and its new corporate pilot fish wanted no part of a sex scandal to rival the drug scandals of the late 1970s.
“People are real strange animals,” Lakers General Manager Jerry West muses. “Everyone has great compassion for people, until it cuts into their livelihood.
Hence, the league was relieved when Johnson seemed to be granted a conditional public pardon, contingent upon his properly performing the bestowed role of AIDS saint. That lasted all the way through the Dream Team summer of 1992. Public opinion began to turn only last August, when Johnson started dropping broad hints that he would like to return to the Lakers full-time. But there were whispers throughout the league, and for the first time, Johnson felt himself losing a part of his most basic constituency: the players.
On October 12, columnist Dave Kindred wrote in The Sporting News that if Johnson planned to return to active NBA competition, he should “tell the whole truth about how he acquired the AIDS virus,” intimating that Johnson could have become infected during unprotected gay sex, an accusation Johnson has repeatedly denied. The charge was the first overt indication that there were people in the NBA who found Johnson’s return unsettling. It began a media frenzy, and the publicity tour for his book, including a graphic interview on ABC’s Prime Time Live, only fanned the flames.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Suns President Jerry Colangelo spoke out about the alleged risks that Johnson posed to his players. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone, an Olympic teammate of Johnson’s, expressed similar concerns to The New York Times. Oddly enough, a controversy that began with the opinion that “the odds” were against Johnson’s having attained the HIV virus through heterosexual sex had evolved into one that assumed as credible the even-longer odds that he could somehow pass the virus along to another player during a game. In the Lakers’ last 1992 exhibition game, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Johnson, playing badly, scratched his arm, and the photograph of Lakers trainer Gary Vitti bandaging the barely visible wound flashed all over the country. Clearly, Johnson’s position had become untenable. On November 2, he retired again.
Perhaps Johnson thought he could finesse it. Perhaps he thought Magic could smile and wave and somehow beat the collective fear that has risen up in the face of epidemic disease over the past 2,500 years. But he was an uneasy saint. People could relate to Elizabeth Glaser, as a mother struck by vicious happenstance. They now looked at Johnson and saw somebody who took sexual risks, especially when he came out and told them just how blatant those risks had been. That was too threatening, particularly if you’re out there yourself. He had to be gay, because then straight folks could feel less threatened by their condom-less Saturday nights. Besides, he’d performed well at the Olympics, and the sick are not generally loved until they become pitiable.
“People are real strange animals,” Lakers General Manager Jerry West muses. “Everyone has great compassion for people, until it cuts into their livelihood. I think it’s a shame because this could’ve been a remarkable story. If it would’ve progressed in a normal way, I think it would’ve quieted a lot of people’s fears.”
Caught between the hysteria that attends any epidemic and his admitted flouting of sexual convention, Johnson had come to a place where his diplomatic skills were of no use, a place where he could not broker a peace even between Earvin, who needed to be loved, and Magic, who needed to be adored. There was a conflict in the plot to which there was no resolution. He had violated the old Muslim proverb. He had left the country of the epidemic, and he was out there all alone.
They have known each other for years. That’s what her friends say. She met Earvin Johnson when they were both students at Michigan State. For some reason, friends say, she was able to touch Earvin when all anybody else wanted was to be touched by Magic. She got married to someone else, had a daughter and then got divorced. In March 1990, she says, she was in the Palladium club in Los Angeles, and she saw him again. On June 22, she alleges in her suit, they made love at her apartment. She says that she asked him about using a condom. She says he declined to use one.
A year later, she discovered that she was HIV-positive. She says she spoke with Johnson by phone in July 1991. She says she wrote him a letter about it on August 29, 1991. She says she found him on September 12 of that year playing basketball with his friends at Jenison Fieldhouse on the Michigan State campus. She says he didn’t believe her, that he was too healthy to have AIDS. Finally, last October, she sued him for $2 million.
Among other things, the suit alleges that Johnson knew that he was HIV-positive seventeen months before he admitted it publicly. If her facts are correct, that makes him more than simply oversexed. It makes him willfully reckless. In the dichotomy of his life, it would be the final triumph of Magic over Earvin. It would make him a villain. Johnson will not comment on the lawsuit, saying only that “they have no case, so they have to attack my character.”
See Magic at ringside, smiling in the spotlight, adored if not loved, and you think of Thucydides and his Athenians, who got drunk on their own private religions because they didn’t have anything to lose, and even the gods had given up.
The woman in question—a 31-year-old health-office worker—is being advised by one Armstrong Williams, a close friend and a conservative Washington, D.C., media specialist whose business partner is Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey’s fiancé. Theodore Swift, the plaintiff’s Lansing attorney, refers all calls to Williams, who was Clarence Thomas’s press officer when Thomas was the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. During the stormy hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Williams worked the halls, drawing for reporters a portrait of Anita Hill as a frustrated and bitter ex-employee.
Williams is shell-mouthed on the whole affair, declining to comment for the record. He has been busy, however. A source familiar with the case insists that it was Williams who orchestrated the steady stream of leaks about the case to Frank Deford of Newsweek. Ever since the first story about the suit appeared, Johnson’s lawyers have charged that the plaintiff was promiscuous herself and that Johnson may have contracted the virus from her. “I don’t know why they have to say that publicly,” says attorney Swift. “I haven’t been running around calling him a whoremonger.” However, since Johnson’s defense will undoubtedly involve impugning the plaintiff’s character, there is no little irony in the fact that it will be Armstrong Williams’s job to keep Earvin Johnson from doing to his client what Williams worked so hard to do to Anita Hill.
Once a portion of the text of the August 1991 letter appeared in Newsweek, last November, it became plain that the woman’s allegations contradicted not only Johnson’s claims at his original retirement press conference but also his autobiography, in which he writes “Of the women I talked to, nobody has tested positive … thank God for that.” Further, if the woman’s story is true, then the past two years of Johnson’s life are open to serious revisionism, and his moral claim to leadership on the issue of AIDS education becomes perilously threadbare. In addition, the revelation of the lawsuit prompted inquiries into whether, married or not, Johnson is still carrying on, something that would sink his public image entirely and forever. Last November, The National Enquirer ran a purported account of Johnson’s weekend trip to Las Vegas to see the heavyweight championship fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, during which, the tabloid alleges, Johnson propositioned anything that moved, except, possibly, the white tigers at the Mirage.
“That whole Vegas thing is a farce,” Johnson says. “I can’t do anything about it. If they want to follow me, they will. I know the truth of it.”
He says he has broken the habit of promiscuity. “Gradually, you take yourself out, and that’s what’s happened to me,” he says. “You’re gradually taking yourself out of the club-type atmosphere where all the single people are who want to meet people. And I think it’s made it easier to me that I’m not playing.
“As a man, you know, you’re always going to say ‘There’s a beautiful woman.’ Now, if a guy says that he can’t see a beautiful woman, that’s lying. Let’s be up front about it. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘That’s a beautiful woman.’ What’s wrong is acting on it.”
That is clearly Earvin talking, but it was Magic who went alone to Vegas, which is not exactly taking oneself out of that atmosphere he’s talking about. See Magic at ringside, smiling in the spotlight, adored if not loved, and you think of Thucydides and his Athenians, who got drunk on their own private religions because they didn’t have anything to lose, and even the gods had given up.
He has an office in Century City, not far from the one Ronald Reagan keeps. He goes there after he works out. There is remarkable bulk to him, so much so that one of his friends wonders “Do you really think he knows what he’s in for? I don’t. We see him all big and strong, but what happens when he gets sick? What will we see, and will we even want to?” In a sense, then, he is buying time, building a kind of public monument to himself while he is still strong enough to do so. Over the course of his career with the Lakers, more than 150,000 people died of AIDS in the United States. He says he’s not afraid that one day he will die a very public death.
“If you’re truthful with yourself, you can sleep good,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about anything or any skeletons in [the] closet. I’m not worried about any of that stuff. I’ve never been a worrier, you know? If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, you know? I keep praying at night, then everything’ll be all right. If I eat right. If I get enough sleep. Everything’s going to be all right because people can live with this for twelve, fourteen, fifteen, years. So I’m thinking, Why can’t it be like this for fifteen years?”
He can look out from his office into the hills above Hollywood. There are a hundred things that could’ve happened. He could’ve got cancer, and nobody would care how or why. He could’ve been drafted by Indiana or Cleveland. “I’d be married for years,” he says, “with a lot of children.” But he bought Hollywood long ago, bought it in his bones and in his soul, and Hollywood delivered. Tonight, he will go on television with his friend Arsenio, and they will laugh and joke and there will be warm applause and a serenade in his ear from saxophonist Kenny G., and it will be a long way from Lansing, Michigan, and the little road that dead-ends at the Oldsmobile plant. He will be back there in a week, home for Thanksgiving and for a book-signing that will be more restrained than the one at the Manhattan bookstore where a woman screamed “Magic!” and fainted backward into an aisle marked “Fᴀɴᴛᴀsʏ.”
No, the people will line up, all decorous and stolid, Christmas carols ringing out of the walls behind them. The signing will be at a suburban bookstore, just up the block from an eightplex movie house that is not a theater, not by a damn sight. “I’m just glad to be home,” he will tell the local press, who love him. “Here, I’m just Earvin, you know?” Downtown, the stores are shuttered, the great blank-staring bones of the auto industry. There is a little public park where the Gladmer Theater was. It is a cold and empty place, and it has no stories to tell.
This story is collected in Sports Guy.
[Featured Illustration: Jim Cooke]