Wiping the smile off the face of athletes

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.

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 naïve 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.

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