By Barry Janoff
December 20, 2012: Basketball Hall of Famer Earvin "Magic" Johnson knows how important it is to get support from family, friends and fans during a crisis. In November 1991, Johnson held a press conference to say he had tested positive for HIV and that he was retiring from the NBA.
Johnson, who won five NBA championships during a 13-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, has often cited the positive input he received from family members, teammates and others as helping him to get through his challenges. Today, among his many business endeavors, he oversees the Magic Johnson Foundation, which helps to raise awareness and funds in the on-going effort to find a cure for AIDS.
Now, Johnson is among those in the world of sports who are grieving for and offering support, moral or otherwise, to the families and friends of the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
"First of all, nobody wants to see what happened in Newtown ever happen anywhere in the world, where young kids and teachers were murdered," Johnson said with a somber voice during a media conference call today. "Most [professional athletes] are fathers, and they probably thought about their own kids when they heard what had happened."
Johnson said that because the kids who were killed lived in Connecticut, "I imagine many were fans of the New York Yankees, the New York Giants. One of the victims [six-year-old Jack Pinto] was a big fan of [Giants wide receiver] Victor Cruz, and [Cruz] visited the family. One of the teachers [Victoria Soto] was a devoted fan of the Yankees, and [Derek] Jeter called the family and spoke with her mother.
"When I heard that, it made me feel good," said Johnson.
When Cruz heard that Pinto was a an, he wrote messages honoring the boy ("R.I.P. Jack Pinto," "My Hero") on the cleats and gloves he wore this past Sunday during a game against the Atlanta Falcons. On Tuesday, he visited Pinto's family, after speaking with them on the phone. Pinto was buried wearing a No. 80 replica Cruz jersey.
Derek Jeter spoke on the phone with the mother of Victoria Soto, who gave her life to save the lives of her children.
Magic, who was speaking to the media about the comparatively less imperative slate of NBA games scheduled for ESPN and ABC on Christmas Day, said he understood how important sports and athletes become when families are grieving.
"Sports, and what it can do, says a lot," said Johnson. "For those guys to reach out, talk to the families, hug the families, try to help ease the pain any way they can, says a lot about those individuals and sports. Sports can give us our high of highs, make us feel better, make us feel good. It can also bring our low of lows when we cheer for our teams. When they win, we are up high; when we lose, sometimes we're low. But the fact that we can watch and get away for two minutes, two hours and feel good . . . I hope that those family members know that. "
"Those families know that losing a child is going to hurt forever. But if [athletes] can bring even a little comfort, it's a good thing."
Johnson, who has three children, paused for a moment, took a deep breath and then continued. "Those families know that losing a child is going to hurt forever. But if [athletes] can bring even a little comfort, it's a good thing."
The sports world came together this past weekend in the hours and days following the horrific events of Friday morning, to honor all the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School. The NBA and NFL had moments of silence before each of their games. Like Cruz and Jeter, some athletes went farther. Running back Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans wrote the names of the 26 kids and educators who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary on his cleats, which were seen by a national audience during the ESPN broadcast of Monday Night Football.
Magic had much more to say during the media conference, focusing on the five NBA games that will be played on Dec. 25.
• "Playing on Christmas is special to all players because they know that millions of fans will be watching."
• "The NBA has gotten back to promoting team rivalries instead of just promoting individual players, and that's a good thing."
• The current state of the defending NBA champion Miami Hea: "They are not playing bored [as some critics have said]. Every team gets up to play against the defending champs. [But] Miami is still the best team in the Eastern Conference and LeBron James is still the best player in the world."
There were a few times when Magic laughed out loud while responding to questions from the media. When asked if he made personal sacrifices because he had to play games on Christmas rather than being with his family, he chuckled, "Most of those Christmases, I was single."
When asked what he would like to see happen to the Lakers, who are struggling to play .500 ball and earlier this season fired head coach Mike Brown and replaced him with Mike D'Antoni, Johnson laughed and replied, "Play good defense. Not the best. Just good."
And when asked whether Miami should be worried about the New York Knicks, who have beaten the Heat by 20 points in each of their two games played this season, Magic laughed again.
"You want to know honestly? It doesn't mean anything," stressede Magic. "It only means something when it's in the playoffs. The Heat know that they have serious competition in the Knicks and that the Knicks are for real. But those wins mean more to the Knicks than to the Heat.
"Can the Knicks beat the Heat in the playoffs? Yes. And they are on a collision course to meet in the Eastern Conference finals. But does it mean anything to the Heat today? No."
Considering it will be Christmas Day, perhaps, as Magic said, the five NBA games that day "can bring even a little comfort" to the families and friends of the 26 kids and adults who lost their lives in Sandy Hook Elementary.