Today (Nov. 7th) is the 20th anniversary of the day the sports world was rocked by Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson's announcement that he would be retiring from basketball because he contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
I, like evryone else was stunned by the news. He had just made the NBA Finals a few months before losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls (the one time I ever rooted for Chicago to win because I was tired of the Lakers being in the Finals every year). His startling announcement shed new light on what was thought to be a "gay disease". HIV and AIDS were thought to be the same thing at the time so many people believed Magic was going to die. Many of the players in the NBA were uneducated about the disease and thus when Magic attempted to return to basketball a few months later, he was met with an ignorance and fear by some of the superstar players in the league, most notably Karl Malone, that made him reconsider and stay retired.
Malone, erroneously thinking the virus could be spread through sweat, expressed his concern stating he would not play as hard if he knew someone who had the virus was playing. Cleveland all-star guard Mark Price was another outspoken player and, if I remember correctly, Charles Barkley was fearful as well.
Magic Johnson's press conference that day was classic Magic. Although he was probably scared out of his mind, he managed to step up to the microphone and tell the world why he decided he would leave the game he loved and dominated. It had to be tough, his wife Cookie sitting to his right pregnant with their child (both Cookie and the future Earvin Johnson, Jr. tested negative), Commissioner David Stern, and the recently retired Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who shared all of those championship moments with Magic in the '80s, to his left. Still Magic was able to flash his trademark smile as he told a captive audience that he would live on and go on with his life. The fierce competitior that he was, Magic was not going to let HIV defeat him.
As inspiring as his positive attitude that day was, his triumphant return to the court in February of 1992 for the NBA All-Star game was just as uplifting. Magic, on the ballot because he was an active player at the start of the '91-'92 season, was voted a starter by the fans even though he did not play a game that season and he more than delivered. All I remember about the game was the high-fives he received from his West teammates (even Malone) during the announcement of the All-stars and the end of the game where he was guarded by former good friend Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan on consecutive possessions. These matchups got a huge rise out of the crowd, but when Magic hit an off balance 3-point shot on Thomas, the 42 points he scored and game MVP he won was the perfect exclamation point to a Hall of Fame career ended too soon.
Magic also started the Magic Johnson Foundation that fateful day effectively becoming the face of HIV in a "if it could happen to Magic, it could happen to anyone" sort of way. Johnson used his platform to educate not only the NBA and its players about the difference between HIV and AIDS and how the HIV virus could be transmitted, but kids, adults, people who were ignorant to the facts about the epidemic that would become a pandemic.
The "cut rule" was introduced into the NBA that season. If a player suffered an open wound or if blood was drawn during play a time out was immediately called so that team doctor could stop the bleeding before play resumed.
Magic was in the prime of his career when he stepped away, all of 32 years old. Although he did manage to comeback late in the '95-'96 season, the game had already changed. All of his former teammates had retired or moved on to other teams and the young players on the roster did not mix well with the aging star. Magic retired for good after that season and has actually gained weight since his playing days leading artists like Kanye West to playfully rap that Magic has the cure for AIDS.
If he does I can't think of a better man who is more deserving.
Below is a suprise appearance Magic made on The Arsenio Hall show (throwback!) the day after losing to Jordan and the Bulls in the 1991 Finals. Check out how classy he is in defeat.
Then five months later having to do this...