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Jock Talk: Johnson in fine form at USF talk

by Roger Brigham

Rick Welts, a gay man who's president and chief of operations for the Golden State Warriors, is a wonderfully successful NBA executive. Last week, however, he was happily overwhelmed and outmatched by one of the most charismatic figures the sport of basketball has ever enjoyed.

Welts appeared at the University of San Francisco Wednesday, October 18, to moderate a discussion as part of the Silk Speaker Series in War Memorial Gymnasium. His assignment was to sit on stage and lob questions at Hall of Famer Magic Johnson to set up slam dunk answers on keys to success, the value of integrating social justice with good business sense, and how to transition from basketball wunderkind to business phenom.

But a key of Johnson's popular success was his "Showtime" approach, constant motion, and undeniable will, and nothing there has changed. Johnson delivered an entertaining, informative, and insightful presentation in which he roamed the audience, called out random students for exchanges, and delivered a message that they should build their careers on confidence, perseverance, skill acquisition - and a desire to make the world a better place for others.

Johnson didn't just own the spotlight: he was the spotlight.

Johnson, 58, good naturally endured the gentle boos when his accomplishments playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and owning the Los Angeles Dodgers were mentioned. He shared a few behind-the-scenes moments when his belief in himself inspired his teammates to have faith in themselves. He showed how diversity in management opened up ways of thinking and enabled him to be a trail maker in bringing viable, needed business enterprises into inner cities.

"Don't do something just to make money," he told the business students. "Do something you're passionate about. The money will come."

He told the crowd about being called home to Los Angeles from Utah before a game during his playing career and being told he was HIV-positive.

"Driving home afterward to tell my wife, who was pregnant at the time, was the hardest thing I ever did," Johnson said. "When you get infected, it doesn't just affect you. It affects everyone who loves you."

Johnson's infection was made public in the fall of 1991. After an initial round of television appearances, he dropped out of the public eye for a few months while he educated himself on HIV/AIDS politics and issues. When he realized his future role as a force in HIV fundraising and education would require him to become more connected with the poz and LGBT communities, he reached out to activists to help him.

And then he reached out to me.

More specifically, he reached out to the Advocate to do a prominent question and answer feature with him, complete with a Herb Ritts cover. The Advocate had no one on board who was both knowledgeable on HIV and on Johnson's career, so they asked me to fly out to conduct the interview and write it up.

For a quarter of a century, I've known my feelings about that assignment, what impact and importance it had in my life. I was at the time the sports editor of a newspaper in upstate New York and most people at work knew I was gay.

Those who didn't knew it once they found out I was doing the story.

I did not tell the Advocate editors I had been HIV-positive for a decade. I didn't tell Johnson. As I sat there lobbing questions and taking down his replies, I kept thinking of how we both believed we were under death watches, destined to be dead in a few years' time.

This was before the anti-viral "cocktails" that would revolutionize AIDS treatment. This was when many were advocating for quarantining poz individuals and still more were leery of any direct contact with anyone who was poz. This was before Johnson would stand the sports world on its head by coming out of retirement, playing on the Dream Team, and appearing in another NBA All-Star game.

We both left that interview room expecting to be dead within a few years - but equally determined to keep on trucking and doing the things we do best as long as we could.

I wrote the headline for the story, "The Importance of Being Earvin" to let my readers know the AIDS community would not get the entertaining Showtime "flash" of Magic but the thoughtful and strategic thinker behind it. And to let my non-sports readers understand just how big a deal Johnson was, I opened the article with the words, "He was the athlete of the '80s, and it was the disease of the decade. After more than 10 years of dominating the headlines on the news and sports pages of America, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the country's awareness of AIDS fused in the national consciousness last Nov. 7."

Twenty-five years have passed, and we met again at the USF presentation. I have left daily newspapers and thrived playing sports and continuing my writing career in ways I never would have thought possible. And Johnson is still wowing and succeeding, interjecting his unique energy and zest for life into a roomful of students seeking words to steer them toward happiness, success and fulfillment.

As I shook hands with Johnson, he leaned in and said, "Thank you. You helped me with that interview. I learned a lot from it."

Who'd a thunk it? Amazing what passion armed with confidence, perseverance, and skill acquisition can do.

To read Roger Brigham's Advocate interview, go to http://idorapark.com/reports/advocate.pdf .

Contact the author at jocktalkroger@yahoo.com .

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