In minutes, there would be a basketball game played at Madison Square Garden. It would be a night like any other, wouldn't it? No, this was something different, and the coach of the New York Knicks picked up a microphone and walked to center court.
Games can wait. First, Pat Riley needed to say something about his friend.
For nine years, Riley coached the Lakers and Magic Johnson, but on a Thursday night full of sadness, Riley would be coaching in a league that had suddenly and unexpectedly lost some of its magic.
Johnson announced earlier in the day at the Forum that he has contracted HIV and was retiring from professional basketball. So, in Madison Square Garden, Riley picked up the microphone.
Riley asked everyone in the stands and on the court "in your own voice, in your own beliefs, in your own way" to pray "for Earvin and for the 1 million people who are afflicted with an insidious disease who need our understanding."
Players and coaches from both the Knicks and Orlando Magic bunched close to Riley, who bowed his head and gently recited "The Lord's Prayer."
When the prayer was finished, Riley said softly: "Let's go, let's play."
News of Johnson's illness spread swiftly through the sports world and well beyond, but the reaction was always the same: shock, disbelief, sadness.
Johnson telephoned, among others, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan to share with each the news of his illness before speaking at his news conference.
Bird left the Boston Celtics' practice at Hellenic College without speaking to anyone.
Longtime friend Thomas took the call from Johnson and secluded himself in suburban Detroit.
Thomas later promised to speak with reporters who met him at a Detroit TV studio where he was filming a Christmas special, but he left without talking to the media. However, Thomas' mother, Mary, said she was deeply hurt.
"You have to know that Magic has been like a son to me," she said. "He and Isiah have been the best of friends for years. I pray it's not true. I tried to call Magic's mother, but she's apparently on her way out there now.
"Magic is one of the nicest people you ever want to meet. He's done so much to help people. But that's how it is in this world. Bad things too often happen to good people."
Jordan, who spoke with Johnson before the Chicago Bulls' practice at the Deerfield Multiplex, said he needed time to compose his thoughts. "I can't believe it," he said.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt, joined Johnson at the Forum news conference to make his support known.
"I know what AIDS victims go through, and it isn't a very pretty life . . . derision, bigotry and fear," Abdul-Jabbar said. "If he wants my help, I'll be there."
Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn said Johnson spent an hour before the news conference meeting privately with teammates in the locker room.
FROM THE ARCHIVES
The day the Magic stopped
Even hearing news was not believing it
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