I'm was sitting on a bench near the gym’s entrance, waiting for my trainer to arrive for my workout. This is Gold’s Gym we’re talking about, home of the serious bodybuilders in Los Angeles.
There’s a metal staircase behind the bench, which leads up to (and down from, it’s a dual purpose staircase) the locker and shower area. I’ve never been up there. It’s for people who are going to work after their workouts, and that is no longer me. Which provides me the luxury of showering at home. All day, if I want to.
I hear heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. He reaches the floor and moves past the bench on the way to the exit, almost rolling, in an athlete’s confident amble. He’s an oversized man, packed into an exquisitely tailored light gray suit. I can only see his back and the right side of his face. He looks familiar, but I’m not sure. The certainty comes when one of the trainers calls out his name.
I immediately melt in my seat.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson is heading out the door.
A short exchange ensues between the trainer and the incomparable basketball legend who spearheaded the Lakers to five championships back in the eighties. I cannot make out the words. My ears are ringing with awe.
My feet feel cemented to the floor. Which is why I didn’t jump up and race after him. It would not have been uncharacteristic for me to do so. Once, in my youth – who am I kidding, I was thirty-five – while walking back to my condo, I spotted a man, driving a burgundy Rolls Royce convertible past me, headed in the other direction. It took me a moment to “lightbulb” his identity. It was Mohammed Ali. I instantly turned, and I chased him down the street. Not to talk. Just to look at him for as long as I could.
Magic was more to me than an iconic sports hero. It was like he and I had a bonding connection. We had both done well in the same decade, me, in television, he, on the basketball court. We’d performed at the highest level, garnered multiple awards, earned substantial contracts and the respect of our peers. Two champions, flourishing in our respective professions. That’s how I looked at it. Although, I believe, I’m the only one.
One of my favorite sayings is, “I love it when it’s good.” And nobody was better than Magic Johnson. He was electrifying to watch; you could not take your eyes off him for a second.
No talented ball hog like Michael Jordan, Magic’s forte was distributing the ball, enhancing not himself, but everyone on the team.
You never knew what he was going to do. Sometimes, even his own teammates were confounded, Magic’s behind-the-back passes glancing embarrassingly off their heads. Mostly, however, they caught it, they shot it and they scored.
To me, the sign of true greatness is being memorable even in defeat. My favorite Magic moment was watching him quarterback the Lakers back from a twenty-point deficit, scoring or assisting on eighteen consecutive points in two minutes.
It was a wild, “Go crazy” time, the Lakers scoring on every possession, continually stealing the ball from a demoralized opposition, who only moments earlier, were breezing to victory. The Lakers wound up losing by two points. But oh, those incredible two minutes!
I wanted to tell him how much joy he had brought me. I wanted to teasingly rebuke him for spoiling basketball for me, because he showed me how the game should be played, with intensity, a chess player’s instinct for the perfect move, and – and here’s a word I’ve never used before – élan, and nobody picked up the torch after he retired. I wanted to tell him how heartsick I felt when his career was abruptly cut short by his life-threatening illness.
I didn’t tell him anything.
I just watched him amble out the door.
And I smiled.