The world stood still as the NBA superstar announced his illness. We all thought he was delivering his own eulogy. We were all wrong.
November 7, 1991: Magic Johnson, world-renowned NBA superstar and five-time world champion, held a hastily-called press conference. Six days into the start of the 1991-92 basketball season, Johnson stood before the collected media and announced to the world that he was retiring from the NBA. The reason? Magic had been diagnosed as HIV positive.
Cue the collective gasp. Magic didn’t look sick like Rock Hudson, the Hollywood icon who died of AIDS in 1985, who was frail, feeble and gaunt. Magic said he felt fine. Meanwhile, the sports world went numb. Celtic All-Star Larry Bird, Johnson’s chief rival in the NBA during the 80s and early 90s, said he cried when he heard. Former Laker coach and then Knicks Coach delayed the tip-off of his team’s game to read the Lord’s Prayer. Charles Barkley changed his number from 34 to 32 (previously retired for Billy Cunningham who granted permission) and wore it in tribute for the rest of the season.
Back then, folks didn’t know the difference between HIV, the precursor to the autoimmune disease known as the AIDS, and the AIDS virus itself. Most conflated the two acronyms and relegated them to being a homosexual’s or bisexual’s disease. Johnson denied he was either. However, dude was a baller. Not quite Wilt Chamberlain man-slut numbers, but Magic was rumored to have racked up over 300 sexual partners in 1990 alone–making it impossible to pinpoint when and from whom he’d contacted the disease.
A somber shroud covered the crowd, along with muffled weeps. Yet Magic seemed unfazed. “This is not like my life is over, because it’s not,” he said to the gathering of Lakers teammates, staffers, execs and media people there for The Announcement. “I’m going to live on,” he stated, beaming broadly with that signature megawatt smile, even in the face of imminent death. “I plan on going on living for a long time. I’m going to beat this, and I’m going to have fun.”
That’s exactly what he did.
Johnson’s second life has been nothing short of miraculous. At the time of his diagnosis, Magic was not only in tip-top shape, but RICH. So he could afford a regimen of medications that has suppressed the virus in his system to almost undetectable levels. Despite his retirement, Magic was voted a starter in the 1992 All Star Game and was the game’s MVP. Later that summer, at the Olympics in Barcelona, Magic formed part of the heralded Dream Team, and brought the gold medal back to US Olympic basketball. But Johnson stopped short of an NBA comeback in 1993. A few League players (namely, Karl Malone, and former teammates Byron Scott and A.C. Green) voiced their (unfounded) concerns about contracting HIV/AIDS should Magic return to the floor. Even the NBA Rules changed post-Magic, requiring an injury time-out for any player who was bleeding; and doctors had to use latex gloves when treating any open cuts. In 1996, Magic made a mini-comeback, playing 32 games before retiring for good–but was still hounded by bad knees, as well as the swirling comments by nervous NBA ninnies fearing for their own lives.
Since then, Magic has become a staunch advocate of safe sex and a champion of HIV/AIDS education and awareness. In the past two decades, Magic would become a business tycoon, owning a minority stake in his beloved Lakers, buying up Starbucks in urban areas across the country, movie theatres in the city of LA, high profile sports commentator, launching a cable channel called Aspire, an advertising agency, his Magic Johnson Foundation, and even buying a piece of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Named the seventh most infamous moment in sports history by ESPN, The Announcement is a moment our folks will never forget.