A professional sports league with a long history of being at the fore of social issues could not, finally, hold up against the weight and power of AIDS. The National Basketball Association tried its best, put on its happiest face, but ultimately shrank when confronted with a disease that divides and kills.
The league descended from the height of the gold-medal pedestal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, last summer to a world of understandable fear, unavoidable back-room sniping and, regrettably, ignorant, needless speculation about a man's sexual choices.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson said in September that he had returned to the Los Angeles Lakers to make a statement for those infected with HIV. But when he quit the Lakers yesterday, less than a week to the year of his shocking announcement that he had acquired the virus that causes AIDS, there was only one message to be grasped: that the NBA -- including Mr. Johnson -- has been no more successful than the rest of the country in galvanizing itself to deal with this scourge.
"The NBA is nothing other than a microcosm of society," said Charles Grantham, the executive director of the NBA Players Association.
Perhaps, but within the NBA there has always been the progressive belief that it was possible for public enterprise to be more than a reflection of the status quo. On issues such as race, drugs, labor relations and practical economics, the NBA consistently left the other professional sports leagues looking primitive. But dealing with AIDS may have been too much to ask.
Not that the NBA didn't try valiantly for many months. Part of its resolve, no doubt, was because the player who was suddenly infected, in need of a hug, was the most beloved in the history of the sport. The NBA and its players happily turned over the All-Star Game to Magic Johnson last February and welcomed him as the captain of the Olympic team.
The league sought medical experts to dismiss the possibility of danger at the All-Star Game. The players' union undertook an aggressive educational program for players at Johns Hopkins University and said it stood behind Johnson at every turn. The NBA's face seemed to be smiling in the face of AIDS, when people thought the only real choice one had was to cry.
But as Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz said in an article in last Sunday's New York Times, "The Dream Team was a concept that everybody loved. Now we're back to reality." He meant that having Mr. Johnson return to play in the games that count, those that are fiercely fought, was not exactly what many of the players had in mind.
When Mr. Johnson announced in September that he wanted back in, the leaguewide smile began to look more and more like a mask. Now it wasn't so much an issue of public relations as it was a matter of public opinion, the public being the players who were going to take the risk of playing against Mr. Johnson, as infinitesimal as doctors insisted the risk would be.
"For all those players who didn't feel comfortable, I would say there was an overwhelming number who were," said Mr. Grantham. "But I can't speak for everyone. There are 325 individual opinions."
It wasn't simply a heightened, even distorted, fear of playing against Mr. Johnson, despite the assurances of the medical world, that finally drove him out. It was a revulsion to a disease that forces people to re-examine their values, their convictions, their ability to set aside life-style differences for the sake of humanity. It was the NBA, as Mr. Grantham said, being nothing other than a microcosm of society.
It turns out that it was not just the issue of transmission that players have been whispering about these last several weeks. Several admitted that there has been widespread discussion on how Mr. Johnson may have contracted the virus in the first place.
"Magic's always been a standup guy. I have no reason not to believe him and there's no reason, when you really think about it, to care how he got it in the first place."
A smiling, beloved champion from the time he entered high school, Mr. Johnson obviously cared about what was being said around the league. Could it be that Mr. Johnson sat in a hotel room one night last week and told himself: 'I don't have to be out here' ?
The primal fears, the divisions created by a killer disease that knows no conscience, could create more stress in a man's life than all 82 NBA games combined.