Beloved Magic Johnson once was as reviled as Donald Sterling

Written By BY RICK TELANDER | @ricktelander Posted: 05/04/2014, 02:40am

History, they say, is written by the winners.

It is also written by — and about — those who persevere and somehow overcome flaws that would sink a normal person.

I’m thinking of Magic Johnson here.

The former NCAA champion at Michigan State, Olympic hero and NBA superstar is a beloved, trusted and successful businessman and philanthropist. He bore the brunt of Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant, and his angry comments in return were taken as the words of the moral majority.

He’s a possible purchaser of those very same Clippers. He wants to bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles. And if you go to the Magic Johnson Enterprises website, you will see his face — as if chiseled on Mt. Rushmore — above the words: ‘‘Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson has become the most powerful African-American businessman in America.’’

But let’s flash back almost 23 years.

Maybe you’re not old enough to remember, but Johnson at that moment was perceived as perhaps the most reviled, amoral athlete in pro sports. If there was such a thing as a role model, he was its opposite.

He had tested positive for HIV, which is the precursor to AIDS, and the way he got the virus — though he never exactly would say how — certainly hinted at irresponsible sexual activity and arrogance. AIDS was so scary and misunderstood at the time that people — and I mean this literally — didn’t want to touch him. He retired from the NBA immediately.

Johnson had just married his wife, Cookie, who was pregnant, and at first he feared he had infected his first child with her, Earvin Jr., with the virus. But he hadn’t.

From the early 1980s, when AIDS first was identified, until maybe the early 2000s, many considered the disease a death sentence. Most of us figured Magic was a dead man walking. I think he did, too.

But he stayed healthy, taking a cocktail of drugs and exercising, while many gay men, intravenous drug users and others of both genders died. I bought Magic’s book from 1992, What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, and read it with my irony meter on high alert. Among his statements: ‘‘The L.A. Lakers even had lectures on HIV in the locker room. I wish I had paid attention.’’

In the book, he makes his promiscuity sound almost like a life passage, a tough break but part of the deal: ‘‘I didn’t get HIV because I was a ‘bad’ person or . . . someone who ‘deserved’ it for whatever reason. I got HIV because I had unprotected sex.’’

Well, yes. And people kill others because they get blasted drunk and drive cars into other cars.

But judgment doesn’t last long in this country if you plow ahead, never quit, have a great smile, etc. All the coaching clichés are true. And nobody at the top has any shame. I think we know that.

So as you think about the despicable Sterling — if you think the fact he beat his son, Scott, constantly with a belt is enough to condemn him forever — don’t forget about second acts.

Sterling, who has cancer and is 80, likely won’t be around much longer. His curtain is closing. Then again, you never know.

Just ask Magic, the healthiest dude around.

† JOHNSON’S BOOK about AIDS was part of a three-book deal his agent sold to Random House. (What, you thought it was done out of contrition?)

The next was called My Life: Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, co-written with William Novak, the author of, among other works, The Big Book of Jewish Humor.

I read that book, too. Among the insights: ‘‘You were definitely taking a chance when you brought a strange woman up to your room. That’s because a few of them really were strange. . . . For one thing, the women weren’t as beautiful as they had seemed at first glance. For another, it eventually became clear they weren’t women at all — they were men in drag.’’

Take heed, kids.

† LAST THOUGHT on the Sterling-Clippers fiasco: Both Sterling and his ex-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, have changed their names. The woman reportedly has had plastic surgery. Magic’s real name, of course, isn’t Magic.

There is something of Hollywood in all this, of desperate American striving, of falseness and trying to be someone else and of the drive for power to compensate for the realities within.

In case you didn’t know, Scott Sterling became a drug dealer, shot his best friend 12 times in the legs as a teenager and died of a drug overdose at 31. It doesn’t seem his ruthless father much cared. Donald has been called ‘‘empty’’ inside.

Such is our country.

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