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Magic Johnson

The decision to retire was not entirely his. The strength to return was.

Perhaps a remote control airplane would provide a better analogy for the career path of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. A remote control fighter jet in the hands of a hyperactive child, that is.

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Undoubtedly one of the most celebrated athletes of our time, Magic Johnson defined basketball for generations of children before suddenly and sadly announcing that he had tested positive for the HIV virus and had decided to retire from the game. He was not expected to return to basketball. Thankfully, Magic Johnson has seldom given heed to other people’s expectations. The story of his return to basketball, swift exit, subsequent return, and final departure demonstrates how devotion, talent, and drive can escort people back to the place where they belong — and do it against all odds.

The legend of Magic Johnson begins in 1979, when his Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team to win the NCAA title. MVP and Number One draft pick, Johnson became the highest paid rookie ever in the history of basketball when he hooked a 5-year deal the Golden State Lakers for $500,000 a year. The Reagan era served Magic well. By 1988, Johnson had led his team to three NBA Championships and two consecutive World Championships. Then, on April 15, 1991, the three-time league MVP truly etched his legend into stone by surmounting Oscar Robinson with the highest number of assists ever recorded. He was at the top of his game.

Then he tumbled down. Shortly after breaking Robinson’s record, Johnson announced on national television that he had contracted the HIV virus. He was going to retire from basketball almost immediately, he said. And he did ? until the itch became almost too much to bear. In 1992, Johnson boomeranged just long enough to join his colleagues in that year’s All-Star Game in Orlando – his tenth start out of a dozen appearances. Then it was back to the bench, this time as a Lakers coach.

But nothing could replace the thrill of the net. On January 30, 1996 — four and a half years after his initial retirement announcement — Number 32 returned to the only NBA team he ever knew, the Lakers. The 6’9″ point guard said no other profession, position, or perspective could compare to that of a Laker. “I’m a basketball player. That’s what God blessed me with. That’s what I do and that’s what I’m going to do now,” Johnson said during an interview at the time. “It’s now or never. I should have been back a long time ago.”

Magic couldn’t ask for a better promotion than returning to his passion. So he did. And he did it well. Following his return, the Lakers went 29-11 and made it into the first round of the NBA playoffs. It was a grand finale, indeed. At the end of that magical 1996 season, Johnson retired again. Shortly after, he was named one of the the 50 Greatest NBA Players of all time.

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