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Benson: Magic and Michael

By William H. Benson

Magic and Michael — both were from the Midwest, from the cold Rust Belt.

Magic Johnson was from Lansing, Mich., and Michael Jackson was from Gary, Ind. When young, both moved to warm and sunny California. Magic played basketball better than anyone, perhaps better than Michael Jordan, and Michael danced and sang better than anyone, perhaps better than Elvis. Both achieved global fame.

Magic played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 13 seasons, won five NBA championships, the first in 1980 and the last in 1988, and was named the league’s most valuable player three times, in 1987, 1989 and 1990. On a basketball court, he dazzled everyone with his “Showtime” playing style, “a mix of no-look passes off the fast break, pin-point alley-oops from half-court, spinning feeds and overhand bullets through triple teams.”

The magic ended with a routine blood test and the worst news. On Nov. 7, 1991, 22 years ago today, at a press conference, Magic announced he had tested positive for HIV and that he would retire from the Lakers, and from basketball. The news stunned his fans, his team, his coaches and the nation. HIV was now infecting heterosexuals, not just gay men and drug addicts.

An ominous and bleak future stretched before Magic Johnson, because in those days, HIV was considered a death sentence. If a person contracted the virus, he or she would get AIDS and die. There was little hope. Magic responded to the dire news in two ways: by taking a daily combination of multiple antiretroviral drugs that strengthened his body’s immune system, and by pursuing a second career in business. The drugs worked. He is alive today and his business is successful.

At the age of 24, Michael Jackson achieved stunning success when he released his “Thriller” album on Nov. 30, 1982. It has sold 42.4 million copies, the best-selling album ever, by far. The songs are tame compared to today’s heavier style. In one of them, Michael and Paul McCartney sing a cute duet, “The Girl is Mine,” but Vincent Price’s ghastly voice at the end of “Thriller” is haunting.

“Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand. And grisly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom. And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver, for no mortal can resist the evil of the thriller.” Price then finishes with a maniacal laugh from deep within an echo chamber.

The 13-minute “Thriller” video features zombies who crawl from their graves to dance and spin with Michael. It still thrills to watch it.

The 1980s was Michael’s decade. If he would have stopped then, he could have achieved more, but the weirdness consumed him: the unrestrained spending habit without the income, the half-billion dollars of debt, the bills never paid, the promises to perform never honored, his failed marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, the child abuse accusations and criminal trial, the addiction to drugs to numb him and give him sleep, and the plastic surgeries to redesign his face.

Jane Fonda confronted him about that.

“I want you to stop now,” she said. “No more. Promise me you won’t go too far with this thing. Love yourself the way you are, for who you are.” But Jane could not reach him, and his looks deteriorated. Gaunt, ghostly looking and emaciated, he transmogrified himself into a freak, which reminds me of the joke kids say in November. “Halloween is over. You can take off your mask now.” For Michael, that was impossible; his mask had become his face.

Michael died June 25, 2009, four years ago, of cardiac arrest caused by a drug overdose when trying to get some sleep, to quiet the inner loop that ran again and again through his mind.

Like Elvis, Michael still sells tickets, still packs auditoriums across the world, and people still love to hear him sing “Billy Jean,” watch him moonwalk, spin and stand on his toes, but they are watching a video. John Branca, Michael’s estate attorney, says, “Michael sells more tickets now than when he was alive.” The magic that was in Michael still lives.

Magic and Michael. Similar starts in life and both endowed with breathtaking talents, but their lives unfolded in such disparate ways.

Michael never contracted HIV, but Magic did. Both turned to drugs: Magic to stay alive and Michael to quiet the demons. Michael left behind three children: Prince, Paris and Michael II. Magic also has three children, but he never held any of his babies over a balcony in Germany, like Michael did with his youngest. Despite HIV, Magic worked to maintain his balance and common sense, but Michael lost his sometime after “Thriller.”

Benson is a historian residing in Sterling, Colo. He writes a bi-weekly column for The Press.