Wednesday 22 January 2020

No Magic in Worm's sorry tale

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

In 1998, Dennis Rodman was one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. On the court, he'd just won his third NBA title in a row with the Chicago Bulls, his fifth in all, had topped the NBA in rebounds per game for the seventh season on the trot and showed in the title games with the Utah Jazz that he was one of the greatest defensive players in the history of basketball.

Off the court, he was an international media franchise of Beckhamesque proportions. Nicknamed The Worm, he'd gone out with Madonna and was about to marry Baywatch star Carmen Electra. There had been an MTV reality show, a film alongside Jean Claude Van Damme, a wrestling tag team with Hulk Hogan, on-stage appearances with Pearl Jam, a best-selling autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be. He also owned a 47-foot speedboat called Sexual Chocolate. As you do.

Last week, a court in California, where Rodman was being sued for over $800,000 in unpaid alimony and child support, heard the former star was broke and suffering from alcoholism. He also owes $350,000 to the taxman. He is 'extremely sick,' his financial advisor told the judge.

In 1998, Magic Johnson was two years into his retirement. But, a one-year comeback notwithstanding, his career had effectively ended in 1991 when he declared himself HIV Positive. When he was selected to play in the NBA All Star game the following year, several players declared their opposition to his presence, fearing they would contract the disease if he suffered a cut on court.

Johnson had also won five NBA titles, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. Three times he'd been NBA MVP, in 1987, 1989 and 1990, so when he left the game he did so at the height of his powers. And when he got his media shot, in 1998, his cable TV chat show was cancelled after two months due to low ratings. On a daily cocktail of drugs to prevent his HIV from turning to full blown AIDS, Magic Johnson would have been only human if he'd felt his best days were over.

Instead, he set up a charitable foundation to help those with HIV, later widening its remit to include impoverished communities. Today a quarter of a million people are helped by the Magic Johnson Foundation, there are five HIV/AIDS treatment centres in some of America's poorest communities, holiday programmes for children, food distribution programmes, computer centres in poor black and Latino neighbourhoods and scholarships.

He also built a business empire, Magic Johnson Enterprises, which is worth $700m, and at one stage owned over 100 Starbucks franchises. And last week, as his old rival went to court, Johnson led a group of investors who bought Major League Baseball team the Los Angeles Dodgers. The price? $2bn, the highest ever paid for a sports club, the previous record being the $1.5bn Malcolm Glazer paid for Manchester United in 2005.

In his personal life, Johnson last year celebrated 20 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart, Cookie, who stuck with him after his 1991 admission that he'd contracted the disease through unprotected sex with other women. Life really can be what you make it.

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