There’s No Such Thing as Magic
The insensitive delivery of two words put an end to my obsession with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was 1984, and I was a pimply, semi-rebellious, thirteen-year-old eighth grader at Garvey Intermediate in Rosemead. I had already taken a hit from a joint, but that’s another story.
The Lakers were my team, and together we were experiencing the glory of the 1980’s! But as is life, adolescent infatuation gave way to heartache. Now and then, during bouts of nostalgia, I’m transported to those times, and my love for the Lakers and the ecstasy I derived from watching them compete is played out all over again, all the memories accompanied closely by the echo of those two words. And then it is clear: once, a long time ago, I was a hard core Lakers’ fan.
The breakup was tragic, for sure, but what made it worse was that at the heart of the tragedy, the two people responsible for breaking my heart were two of my boyhood heroes: Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It may sound dramatic, I’m aware, but sports are dramatic and athletes are dramatic. I have every right to be dramatic.
I, along with my classmates, was nearing the end of my tenure at Garvey. There would be no more kissing Tami Duran’s soft, untrained lips, and there would be no more fondling Bernadine’s unfamiliar, uncontaminated, barely formed breasts. My middle school years were dissolving
Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to be among the few academically eligible eighth graders left standing as the school year wound down. The school was teeming with fuck-ups, but as a reward for maintaining good academic standing, those of us who survived were treated to a Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns basketball game at the Fabulous Forum of Inglewood. The school called it the “Eighth Grade Trip,” but we called it “Fucking Awesome!”
I ran all the way home with the permission slip flailing in my hand. Most of my friends were going, too. We were all ecstatic—Alex, Cesar, Julius, Daniel—we were finally going to catch up-close looks of “Magic”, Kareem, “Big-Game James,” “Silk Man,” Nixon, McAdoo, and Cooper! I didn’t know what I had done to deserve this, but it was happening. I was going to see the “Greatest Show on Earth.” And on this special night, my little brother Juan was my co-pilot. My little sister Erica was too young still. Plus, I don’t think she’s a basketball fan, anyway.
The night began with a chartered bus ride from Garvey Intermediate to the Fabulous Forum. The supervision was loose, save for a teachers that did their best to keep an eye on us. At the game, Mr. Higgins, one of the math teachers, spilled Miller Draft all over his Magic jersey. He was drunk by halftime. The bus teeming with energy and anticipation. It was special, and I was happy to be a part of it.
Thirty-minutes into the raucous ride, the lights which gleamed atop The Fabulous Forum served as a beacon to let us know we were near. And then there were more
lights and a bustling crowd and general fanaticism, and then I was sure that I was in the midst of something big and that magical things awaited us inside.
The Forum itself is a monument—ancient and historic— our Stonehenge, our Coliseum. The biggest building I had been in up to this point was Memorial Hospital, where I was born. My thirteen-year-old heart was trying to escape my chest.
The Lakers were the team of the 80’s. No one could dispute this. And it was no coincidence. We had two of the best players on the planet in Magic and Kareem, and these guys had the finest supporting cast since The Godfather. Michael Cooper was the best “Sixth Man” in the league, and Pat Riley was the embodiment of God and Hollywood. We were all Hall of Fame. We also had the best basketball announcer in the history of the N.B.A. Chick Hearn narrated every basket, every free throw, every layup, and every “Coop-a-Loop” for us Angelenos. There was no cable yet, and no pay-per-view, so we caught every game on T.V. On most evenings, our dials were turned to channel 9.
My mouth must’ve remained agape for the entire time after I entered the arena. There were banners everywhere! Giant, purple and yellow Lakers banners and flags and strobe lights and more banners hung from the rafters. People were screaming, music was blaring, and the Lakers Girls were shaking their collective asses at midcourt.
This was all pre-9/11, so security at The Forum virtually non-existent. Everything was more American. My brother and I basically had unlimited access to the Forum’s floor. We walked into the tunnels where the cheerleaders were warming up. We got up to the edge of the court and saw both teams in the middle of their pre-game shooting and warm-up drills. The entire scene and the placement of its props and characters were sharp, colorful, and well-rehearsed. Even the echo of the ball bouncing off the court sounded professional. The scene was a poem and we were watching it being written.
Our heroes had yet to hit the court. We knew they were in the locker rooms preparing for their entrance. We were ready, too. We waited anxiously at courtside, biting down on our fingers. It was difficult to wait, though, and when it proved unbearable, I prodded Juan to keep moving so that we could continue exploring the Forum’s hallowed grounds.
There was something exciting to see at every turn. We walked up and down every flight of stairs, and we walked around the entire court, passing closely by the Lakers’ bench, hoping a player would toss us a towel like Franco Harris did to that kid in the Coca-Cola commercial. We were everywhere. Then we spotted a darkened corridor, a tunnel that was somewhat hidden under the stands. Tip-off was only minutes away.
My brother and I worked our way toward the tunnel. It didn’t take us long to realize that it was the tunnel that led from the locker room to the court. We saw it on T.V. It was the Lakers’ tunnel! There was nothing surreptitious about how we got there. We simply walked in its direction and acted like we had business there. We were following the light at the end of the tunnel. We were deep into the players’ area, near the locker rooms.
I had no idea this part of the arena would be my Theatre of Pompey. Standing outside the locker room doors and a few feet away from the corridor’s exit were Kareem and Magic. Life was imitating life. My heroes were standing in front of me, just a few feet away! I was grinning maniacally. My brother didn’t seem too impressed, but he had pushed up awkwardly close against me. He was nervous, too.
I had a pen gripped tightly in one hand and three sheets of lined paper clutched in the other. I was convulsing and as I stood there, eyes bulging and mouth ajar. I gripped the pen tighter, and made sure the paper was still in my other hand. It was my move. My brother walked a little behind me, taking baby steps, crouching a little as if we were approaching tigers in the wild. I took notice of my steps. They seemed heavy and lacking the confidence they usually exhibited. I was about to take a huge chance with two of my idols—I was a ball of nerves—but this risk had to be taken. I needed autographs. I needed proof.
Kareem and Magic saw us. How could they not? We were two bug-eyed, grinning, trespassing Mexican kids. Magic and Kareem’s eyes were on us we came towards them. Magic had two Lakers cheerleaders with him, one under each arm. Kareem, too, had a pair of Lakers Girls under each of his arms. The two were like skyscrapers in purple and yellow Lakers jumpsuits, and the cheerleaders resembled tiny birds protected in their enormous wingspans. But there we were—all eight of us—characters in what was to be a defining scene in my life. Like I said, I know it’s dramatic, but this was the 80’s. Everything was dramatic then. Madonna was months away from masturbating on stage in a wedding dress. It was a wicked time.
I walked up to Magic first. It wasn’t a tough decision. He was the best. I walked up close to him and strained my neck to look up to his face—I probably came up to his ankles. “Magic, can I have your autograph?” I said. I was smiling so hard it hurt, completely confident that he would grab both pen and paper and give me his autograph. He glanced at me, not making eye-contact, and said, “Later kid.” He quickly turned away and continued his conversation with the two cheerleaders. The girls continued to throw their heads back in laughter, laughing at everything that came out of these guys’ mouths. I was about a foot from Magic. I remember looking at his face, and I remember his smile. He had big teeth. I was so close to him that my hand brushed against his warm-up suit.
His refusal hurt my heart. I turned away from Magic and pivoted towards Kareem. I was a foot from him, too. I knew he would give me his autograph. “Kareem,” I said in a pathetically hopeful tone, “can I have your autograph?” I was standing directly in front of him, on my tippy toes, my arms extended fully upwards, pleading with body language that he would snatch the pen and paper and make my dream come true.
He looked down at me for a quick second, barely acknowledging my presence and said, “Later, kid,” in the same lazy, fucking tone as Magic. All six resumed their fake conversation, laughing together as if we had not been there.
The walk out of the tunnel was difficult. I was as dejected as I’ve ever been. I looked back one last time just to be sure that these two assholes were serious. Magic’s neck was tilted way back in laughter, and his big, fat mouth was wide open, and his fake and ridiculously white teeth were showing all over his goddamned face. Kareem’s arms hadn’t even budged. He held on to the girls as if they were the only things keeping him standing. We exited, and I my love for the Lakers was left behind.
“Later kid.” These words were still echoing in my mind. “Later kid.” They were coming over The Forum’s P.A. system. The words followed me on the bus ride home, too. When I awoke the next morning, “Later kid” was the first thing I heard.At school, I asked Mrs. Deckoff a question, and I could swear she said, “Later kid.”
I was comatose for the remainder of the game. I don’t even know which team won. I solemnly managed to get a few of the Phoenix Suns’ autographs. It wasn’t difficult. They were nice and generous. I even got Larry Nance’s autograph. But these were The Suns. Of course they were nice. What other option do you have when you’re team is in the basement. I threw the autographs in the trash when I got home.
From that day on, I never felt the same about the Lakers. Coincidentally, at the end of the basketball season, the Clippers sailed into town from San Diego. Los Angeles was their new home, and they became my new team. I bought season tickets, right behind the basket. At the time, they were nearly given away because the Clippers barely resembled a team. Still, I supported them. I still do. I my fondness for them is stronger than it was for the fondness I felt for the Lakers. I don’t entirely hate the Lakers. I just don’t really care too much for Magic and Kareem, that’s for sure
I heard someone say that you should never meet your heroes. I should’ve heeded this message.