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Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson -- Steve Lipofsky www.Basketballphoto.com


Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics Larry Bird in Game two of the 1985 NBA Finals at Boston Garden Date 30 May 1985 - Steve Lipofsky www.Basketballphoto.com





James Loving - National Radio Text Service



Two people that loved the game of basketball walked on different paths. One got to the top of the NBA winning 5 NBA titles and 3 league MVP Awards the other was killed on his way to a successful Cambodian national team basketball career. One lives 20 years after acquiring the HIV virus and is now 52-years-old. The other lived one year less than Johnson's 20 years of fighting off death. Place this in the GO FIGURE FILE.


Friday November 11, 2011


Within two hours of hearing abut former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier's death two more stories came to our attention related to our sports coverage. It was good news and bad news for two basketball players. One of those news stories was the well known former NBA star Magic Johnson who announced 20 years ago on Nov. 7, 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus. At that time that news was a death sentence for it was believed that anyone having the virus would be dead within 10 years. On November 7, 2011 Johnson celebrated fighting and surviving the deadly disease. For him and his fans this was good news.

The bad happened to an aspiring Cambodia national team basketball player Phal Samphors who was killed in a motorbike accident last Friday evening November 4th. The irony is that Samphors was only 19-year-old and just beginning his life of achievement and success being one of the youngest starting players on the national team and considered to be a super developing talent. His life was taken away as he lived one year less than when Johnson started his 20 year battle facing death.

Both of these players were a part of my life as a sports journalist. Johnson wasn't the good guy that the LA media portrayed him to be. Prior to his announcement of contracting the virus at the beginning of the 1990-91 season he made an announcement in the Lakers locker room that he was going to marry his long time girlfriend Cookie with whom he had a child.

Then karma bomb dropped on Johnson prior to the 1991-92 season when his HIV was diagnosed. It was revealed that he was having sexual affairs with other women including a porn star. Johnson emphasized that he caught the virus by having sex with women and stressed the fact he was heterosexual during a period that many felt only gay men caught the disease.

Johnson took a cocktail of drugs in his fight for life but refused to share with the world what exactly were the drugs he was taking. He got on with his life as a business man and became a very wealthy worth close to a billion dollars. He became a 4.5% owner of the Lakers.

Johnson kept on winning as he did in his 14-year pro basketball career with the Lakers in winning 5 NBA titles within the 80's decade. He continued to rise to the challenge in his battles with another NBA superstar Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics with whom he battled in the NCAA 1979 final in which Johnson's Michigan State team defeated Bird's Indiana State squad. Johnson and Bird were credited with saving the NBA which suffered a down period of popularity during the 70's.

Johnson was the most popular NBA star prior to the emergence of Michael Jordan. In a recent LA Times newspaper poll Johnson remains revered in LA being voted the 2nd most popular sports figure ever in LA trailing only former MLB baseball pitching star Sandy Koufax but ahead of the greatest coach in college basketball John Wooden.

Though a proven winner the HIV virus slowed him down but has yet to take him down.

After that HIV announcement the three time NBA MVP continued to be a fan favorite. Despite his retirement, Johnson was voted by fans as a starter for the 1992 NBA All-Star Game at Orlando Arena, although his former teammates Byron Scott and A. C. Green said that Johnson should not play, and several NBA players, including Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, argued that they would be at risk of contamination if Johnson suffered an open wound while on court. Johnson led the West to a 153-113 win and was crowned All-Star MVP after recording 25 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds. The game ended after he made a last-minute three-pointer, and players from both teams ran onto the court to congratulate Johnson.

Johnson was chosen to compete in the 1992 Summer Olympics for the US basketball team, dubbed the "Dream Team" because of the NBA stars on the roster. During the tournament, which the USA won, Johnson played infrequently because of knee problems, but he received standing ovations from the crowd, and used the opportunity to inspire HIV-positive people.

The NBA then imposed a rule that if a player was cut they had to come out of the game to be bandaged. Johnson returned as the Lakers Vice President then coach and failed miserably with a 5-11 record after replacing Randy Pfund at the end of the 1993-94 season.

Johnson has had his losses including an unspectacular return to the NBA after a three year retirement. After numerous protests from his fellow NBA players he returned to the league again in 1996, at age 37 to play 32 games for the Lakers before retiring for the last time.

Johnson over extended his talent when in 1998, he hosted a late night talk show on the Fox network called The Magic Hour, but the show was canceled after two months because of low ratings. It was a show of Johnson about himself with I, me, my cluttering the program.

He focused on his business of building movie theaters in black neighborhoods in the USA and bought into a part ownership of the Lakers. There wasn't anything that Johnson wouldn't take on he proved to be the competitor in his fight for life as he was on the basketball court.

For Samphors the irony is his life was just beginning to bloom when it was taken away at only 19. He was the most promising and tallest player on the Khmer team. He had returned last week after playing in a tournament in China and was to leave for the SEA Games which for basketball begins Saturday. He was talented enough to be selected for the national team at the age of 17 after being discovered by head coach Austin Koledoye.

He was so sought after that the sports federation gave him a house to live in while in Phnom Penh. After his return from the China tournament he was driving home on his motorbike to visit his mother in Pre Veng Province to give her $300 before he was to depart Wednesday November 10th for Indonesia to compete in the SEA Games.

The strange twist to this is I heard about his only two hour before I was going to meet with the squad to get their story about the China tournament and the progress they made in preparing for the SEA Games.

I met Samphors prior to a practice when I was waiting to interview coach Koledoye. While waiting the assistant coach said I could shoot some baskets. I did and the other person on our side of the court was Samphors. He spoke a few words of English and asked me what I did. I informed him I was a journalist and also covered and attended NBA games for 10 years and continue to write about it.

He then asked if I knew Michael Jordan. I replied yes and said that I had an interview that I did with him in my phone. When I tried to play it there was a problem as it wasn't there. I had just come from the Nokia repair service with a problem that the phone couldn't take pictures. They did something to it and then I couldn't find the Jordan interview.

Samphors then pulled out his phone and with a glee in his eyes played a video of Michael Jordan. I promised him that I'd find my radio Jordan and play it for him at a later time.

We did a two part story on the team before they left for China and it was focused on the three Cambodian imports that joined the team the day before. I didn't have the chance to play it for him as the post game states and interviews were with those that spoke English including the Vietnam national team coach. The day I heard the news about his death was the day I was going to play that interview for him. This is a personal thing as he was the only Khmer speaking player on the national team that I had contact with although I had previously played in pickup games against two of the players on the team but there was no communication between us.

There was with this young man who was a great human being. He was polite and considerate. As his success grew he had the potential to be a great role model for youth in a country where role models are hard to come by. While one can understand the death of Joe Frazier at 67-year-old after suffering such brutal beatings in the ring for so many years it's hard to understand why a talented 19-year-old young man with a promising future had to have it taken away.

To put things into perspective Samphors lived ONE YEAR LESS than the 20 years that Magic Johnson has been fighting death after being infected with HIV. It is shocking. Samphors' life ended just as it was about to begin. To look at this tragedy in a positive way Buddhists believe in a return to a future life. If that be so we hope that Samphors returns to be the next Michael Jordan.


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