Magic Johnson: The HIV Announcement – Twenty Years Later

It was a moment in time that stopped you cold, rendering you speechless, emotionless and somewhat hopeless. Magic Johnson proclaiming that he was HIV positive left the world stunned and anyone with a questionable past either scrambling for a blood test or running away from the potential truth.

Prior to the Events of 9/11, “The Announcement” was possibly the defining moment of my generation. And for a then 19-year-old looking forward to finally entering adulthood, the rules of engagement had been changed forever.

Magic Johnson isn’t supposed to be here. He gave his eulogy in The Forum two decades ago.  We’ve witnessed the relentless power of this disesase, as evidenced in the passing of Rock Hudson, Liberace and Freddie Mercury – all white men, all gay. Johnson is a heterosexual Black man.

For Black men and women across America, the game just became real!

There was an unprecedented wave of second guessing following Magic’s announcement. What happened after that third rum and coke? That little black book seemed as important as the Bible, holding the answers to a moment once taken for granted. The rules of engagement were violated as we looked for offenders and we prayed that we had not been offenders ourselves.

Multiply that feeling times four in the sports world where even the team’s equipment manager had a following. Imagine a player of Johnson’s status and what readily available to him in every NBA city. What looked to be top shelf was in reality the lowest of the laying fruit, able to wreck a family and the lives they cherish in one moment of faux passion.

As I tried to brace myself mentally and emotionally for what Magic would have to endure, there was a silver lining in this dark cloud – his new bride Cookie and their unborn child (Earvin III) tested negative.

But what about Magic?

I couldn’t wait for my facial hair to grow in enough so I could have a goatee like Magic – I was in awe of what a man his size could do with a basketball. Friday nights for me meant one thing,  the Lakers coming on at 11:30 on CBS.  The megawatt smile, the engaging conversations with that midwestern drawl made Johnson seem like a cousin or brother that you always wanted.  I always had love for Magic, even if it came at the expense of my Sixers in The Finals. I could take losing to Magic - I couldn’t take losing to Larry Bird.

I loved Magic Johnson because he was a winner.

But this was a different game with no rules, his opponent was relentless - he would be engaged in a 24/7 battle for his life. There was no referee, no shot clock and no way out - this wasn’t Game 7 in the Boston Garden. This disease was undefeated and broke down men and women physically before breaking their wills, without discrimination.

That was before HIV met Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

I watched his announcement for the first time since that day while writing this and two things stood out - first, was Magic’s demeanor during his speech, his approach was one of fearlessness and aggression, almost welcoming the challenge. Second, were his words, “My life will go on…” At the time I saw it as Johnson being heroic and trying to put our fears to rest. What would he be saying in a year or when the virus becomes full-blown AIDS.

Charles Barkley changed his number from 34 to Magic’s 32 to honor the retired legend

As shock waves spread throughout the world there were there was a great outpouring of affection for Johnson, while the holier-than-thous took the opportunity to chastise Magic and say everything short of him”deserving” this fate. Johnson talked of having unprotected sex with multiple sex partners and how at the time he didn’t feel that it would happen to him. Johnson became a spokesperson for the disease through The Magic Johnson Foundation, as well as lecture on the prevention and spreading of the deadly disease.

Johnson had ruled out basketball because he was infected and didn’t want to put any players at risk. But the fans who voted Johnson in as a starter and Tim Hardaway (who gave up his starting spot) thought enough of Johnson to see him start in the 1992 NBA All-Star game – which was quite appropriate since there would be no retirement parties in arenas around the league because he was abruptly leaving the game. What better way to go out than on a stage with and against the world’s best.

 

As the All-Star game luster wore off, the United States was preparing to send a professional contingent of NBA players to the Olympic games for the first time. Johnson left Michigan State after his sophomore season thus he was ineligible to tryout for the team that was to play in the Moscow games that the U.S. ended up boycotting anyway. But this team was much greater - the greatest team ever assembled and it was the perfect platform for Johnson, who wanted to spread his word about HIV awareness. As he and his ” Dream Team” mates prepared to smash the world – Johnson would be afforded that chance.

As the Dream Team did what they set out to do, Johnson would collect his first gold medal becoming only one of a handful of players to win an NCAA Championship, NBA World Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal.  Since the All-Star Game, things had gone smoothly from a basketball standpoint, with the exception of sore knees,  Johnson’s game didn’t miss a beat and fatigue wasn’t a factor – why not return to the NBA?

Magic would play in several preseason games as the 1992-93 season was on the horizon, but a funny thing happened on his way to returning, several NBA players, including Johnson’s Olympic teammate Karl Malone, expressed fear of what could possibly happen if Johnson did suffer an open wound.

“Just because he came back doesn’t mean nothing to me,” said Malone. “I’m no fan, no cheerleader. It may be good for basketball, but you have to look far beyond that. You have a lot of young men who have a long life ahead of them. The Dream Team was a concept everybody loved. But now we’re back to reality.”

Funny how Karl Malone’s last-ditch effort to win an NBA title landed him in Lakers purple and gold.

Johnson would not return to the NBA until the end of the 1993-94 season, replacing Randy Pfund but his tenure would only last until the end of the season. Johnson would purchase a 5% share in the team. Johnson would return to the Lakers for the 1994-95 season. Playing power forward he would average 14 points 5 rebounds and 7 assists per game. Johnson said following a first round exit to the Houston Rockets: “I am going out on my terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992.”

In the two decades since “The Announcement” – American culture has become a smorgasbord of sexploitation. Stories of celebrity scandal trump those of hungry children and poverty-laden communities. Television reality shows glorify sexual promiscuity and infidelity. America’s desire for the low-lying fruit is at an all time high - even when stepped upon. The anxiety in the days that followed November 7, 1991 has been matched by a total disregard for the message.

Johnson is beautiful picture of health, Cookie and their son  Earvin III remain healthy. The Johnson’s also adopted a daughter Elisa in 1995. The list of Magic’s business ventures has become long and profitable, he has become a spokesperson for everything from Rent-A-Center to his own contract food company Sodexo-Magic.

While Johnson’s has gone on with his life as he promised he has remained true to his cause. He continues to educate both young and old on HIV/AIDS awareness, as well as lecturing across the country as a motivational speaker and philanthropist.

That’s the Magic we’ve known, goatee and all - looking for the next big assist.

8 Responses to “Magic Johnson: The HIV Announcement – Twenty Years Later”

  1. Miranda says:

    Wow…its so surreal. 20 years? I can still remember that press conference like it was yesterday.

  2. Temple3 says:

    Great stuff. My favorite NBA player of all time.

    And that LA equipment is pretty popular: http://www.nba.com/coachfile/gary_vitti/index.html?nav=page

  3. Corin Brown says:

    Magic was the best player I ever saw until MJ took over and that’s coming from a Bostonian.

    First, he was the best PG I ever saw. But he was also a master of every other job on the floor, as I came to learn by witnessing him cover for an injured Kareem in the Finals against Philly (1980, I think?) I was just a little kid at the time, so I didn’t realize how big a deal that was until I watched a lot more basketball and began to appreciate how much more Magic must have understood the game than his opponents to be able to play center at such a high level. I’ve always loved the saying, “______ is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.” That saying applies for only a handful of athletes. Magic was def one of those athletes. He combined the cerebral with the physical with devastating effect.

    Second, the guy couldn’t have been a fiercer competitor. The ONLY thing he cared about was winning. In modern sports outside of football, that’s increasingly rare. He would do ANYTHING to win. Why else would he agree to play out of position at the risk of embarrassment on a national stage? How many modern players would do that? No one competed harder than Magic. His sunny, off the court personnae totally belied his on the court ruthlessness. He was a stone assassin. I loved that about him (even though the best example of this came against my C’s on his audacious last second 3 point sky-hook bank shot in the Garden.) To me, on that play, he out-Birded Bird, in Bird’s house. Respect.

    Third, the HIV thing was rough. He probably did as well as any athlete could do with the PR at the time. Although, I never liked the way on Arsenio’s show, he felt like he had to assure everybody that he wasn’t gay. It felt like a diss on gay folk. It was a little tacky. But what did I expect from any athlete? They’re all macho guys who are all terrified of any association with homosexuality (especially the gay athletes themselves.) How else do you explain sports being the last closeted segment of American culture and society? Anyway, none of that was Magic’s responsibility. He handled it no worse than any other athlete would have done.

    Fourth, Magic the businessman. Damn! Who’s done better post career than Magic? MJ, maybe? But MJ seems like a jerk. Magic should run a financial planning firm with nobody but athletes as clients. They should all listen to him.

    Bottom line? Magic was awesome as a player and has set an awesome example of how to use the personal talents you have to convert awful circumstances into wonderful opportunity.

    Just stay away from the coaching whistle!

  4. eric daniels says:

    That was a surreal Thursday afternoon, I was going to work and somebody ran up to me and asked me did I know about Magic and asked him is he dead or something? He said worse, he has AIDS. That floored me like a kick to the stomach, afterwards during my lunch break I saw the press conference with David Stern, Kareem, Worthy and Cookie and they looked like a it was a eulogy of sorts.

    I thought Magic would be dead in about a year (during that time if you got HIV your life expectancy wasn’t that long) But his will to live, class in which he carried himself and being open about his lifestyle choices that made the diease possible (and we all had dreams of living that life of women, stardom and money) made me admire him even more and as an African- American businessman who backed up his rhetoric with companies in majority Black neighborhoods he created a larger legacy than just being one of the three greatest players in the history of Basketball.

    Magic taught me how to face an illness with grace and to embrace life for all it’s worth.

    1. Bill Russell
    2. Magic Johnson
    3. Jerry West

  5. Corin Brown says:

    The coaching whistle AND the talk show desk.

  6. TeeDee says:

    Nice article as always. It’s refreshing that Magic is able to live his life to the fullest despite having HIV. Beyond any doubt one of the true greats that ever grace the game.

  7. Ron Glover says:

    @Corin, I tried my best to surpress the talk show, LOL!

  8. Matthew Fudge says:

    I was 23 years old and working in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ. An Indian co-worker walked into our trailer and said that he heard that Magic Johnson was going to retire because he had AIDS. I don’t care what anyone says, NOBODY thought he’d live long enough to see 40, let alone 50 (he’s 52 now). So glad we were wrong.

    The one downside to him thriving with the disease is that so much time has passed, too many black and Latino people have become lax when it comes to protecting themselves during sex. The majority of new HIV cases involve black women. You have kids out here who probably didn’t know HIV forced him into retirement until his 20-year anniversary came up. Time has dulled the importance of his message. That has to change.

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