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Magic Johnson and 'The Announcement'

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 11, 2012 11:41 AM

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If there's ever lived a superstar athlete with more genuine effervescence and charisma than Magic Johnson, he's not coming to mind right now, probably because he (or she) does not exist. As a Celtics fan, I can, begrudgingly, admit that includes ol' No. 33. Magic's smile was as electric as the Lakers' fast break he orchestrated, his personality as big as his typical performance in big moments.

Save for the occasional disastrous talk show, Magic has always made us watch, particularly when he and his glitzy Lakers were dueling Larry Bird in the Celtics during the NBA's '80s heyday. Yet it's also true that even for those of us who wax nostalgic for those days, we will always remember watching Magic more than anything else for a reason that resonated well beyond the world of sports.

On November 7, 1991, Magic stepped to the podium in front of black curtain at the Great Western Forum and told the world that he was HIV-positive. "Because of the
HIV virus I have attained," he said. "I will have to retire from the Lakers." If you're of a certain generation, the words rattled you to your core. I can still remember the blood rushing from my face while watching the announcement on CNN in my college apartment.

He occasionally smiled, forcing it for the first time perhaps in his life, but his eyes did not. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, the words of this extraordinarily vivacious athlete shook a generation. He vowed to beat the disease, but the statistics countered with an awful reality. As he spoke that day, you believed Magic Johnson, just 32 years old then, was going to die, possibly publicly and surely soon.

Twenty years later now, and we have another reason to watch Magic, and no, that's not a reference to his studio duties on ESPN's NBA programming. (He never has quite mastered the TV thing.) Tonight at 9 p.m., ESPN debuts "The Announcement,'' a look back at that staggering day and Magic's exceptional life since. He's a wildly successful businessman, a grandfather, an advocate, and with his burly physique, literally more larger than life than ever.

The film, directed by Nelson George, is extraordinary as the basketball player and the man himself. For the basketball junkie, the NBA archival footage of Magic as the peak of his powers is reason enough to tune in. But "The Announcement'' also delivers for those wondering how Magic survived the devastating news and the 20 amazing years since.

It becomes quickly apparent that his beautiful wife, Cookie, who has rarely spoken at length publicly about his diagnosis until now, is the heroine of the story, something her husband, whom she first met at Michigan State, recognizes bluntly. "If she had left," Magic said, "I probably would have died.''

And Celtics fans may not want to hear this, but Pat Riley comes across as a truly good man. In 1991, he had since moved on from the Showtime Lakers to the Knicks and was implementing his brand of goon basketball that would set back the league a decade. But Riley gave Magic a shoulder when he needed one, once working him out at Madison Square Garden because he knew it would boost Magic's spirits (it also helped spur one of his two comebacks). Riley's emotion and candor when he discusses Magic jostles the feelings Magic's fans felt the day the news came down.

"The Announcement'' is a must-watch, but it is not without obvious flaws. I'd put it a notch below ESPN Films's best offerings, such as Jonathan Hock's "The Best That Never Was.'' Very little time is spent on Magic's promiscuity and how he contracted the disease other than vague and seemingly sentimental those-were-some-times references to wild nights at the Forum Club, where Magic was the superstar among superstars and women treated him accordingly.

I would have liked to have heard from former teammates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Byron Scott, A.C. Green and Michael Cooper. Only James Worthy's voice is prominent. Comedian Chris Rock, a longtime friend and collaborator with the director, is overused, particularly when he's talking about the anything-goes L.A. nightlife in the '80s. Rock was 20 and only on the fringes of fame in 1985. I'd rather have heard more from someone who experienced the times with Magic, or more from his friend Arsenio Hall, and yes, this is probably the only circumstance in which I'd say that when Chris Rock is an alternative.

But those are small gripes about a film you'll want to watch again immediately the moment it ends. As Magic, who narrates much of the film, charmingly banters with a crew member, you'll recognize that few men could handle November 7, 1991, the announcement, and the aftermath, with the grace, determination, and positivity of Magic Johnson. Magic's words, as recalled by longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, are sure to stay with you. "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person." What a remarkable, reassuring thing it is to see him alive and thriving in every way two decades later.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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