In every youngster’s life there are moments that you remember forever.
One that will always stand out in my mind and resonate deeply occurred Nov. 7, 1991.
I vividly recall being picked up from a day in eighth grade in San Diego by my dad. He looked pale, almost shocked. My friend and I inquired as we hopped into the van.
“Magic Johnson just retired,” he said. “He has AIDS.”
It took me awhile to let this all sink in. The NBA season had just begun, and Magic, 32 at the time, seemed fit and ready to again lead the Lakers, who had lost the NBA title to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in June, in search of another NBA crown.
A big hoops fan at the time, someone whose Bar Mitzvah party two months prior had been surrounded by photos of Magic from my 1989 summer at his basketball camp, I was crushed on so many levels that I didn’t know what to think or say.
On the ride home after dropping off my equally distressed friend, my dad and I listened to Magic’s news conference. I keep remembering his opening words, “Because of the HIV virus which I have atttained…”
Even being only a few months into eighth grade, we had learned in science classes about the difference between HIV and AIDS, so I knew that my dad’s dramatic statement was not entirely accurate, and Magic had not necessarily been handed, as many felt, a “death sentence.” That said, when the Lakers star confidently emphasized he planned to “live for a long time,” I confess I didn’t necessarily believe him.
I knew that HIV turns into AIDS and that, as the coming days showed, most NBA players would not be keen on playing against Magic in intense games where blood sometimes is spilled. Karl Malone was the first to express his fear of competing with Magic. Most other players, though saddened by the news (Michael Jordan claimed he nearly “drove off the road”), felt Magic’s retirement was the proper decision.
The silver linings of this dark day have lasted for two decades – in a positive way. It’s led to advances in AIDS education and research, as well as further clarifying for the public the myths and facts about this potentially deadly disease.
Magic Johnson is still very alive. He has a reported net worth close to $100 million. While many editorials and feature stories of that era bemoaned the fate of Magic, ostensibly writing his obituary, Johnson’s quote in a subsequent issue of Sports Illustrated was correct: “I’ll deal with it.” I still have that issue.
Instead of dying or disappearing, Magic’s “second act of life” has been incredible by anyone’s standards. He hosted an ephemeral late-night talk show, became part-owner of the Lakers, and is a regular sight in public, often in schools, or near his Magic Johnson Theatres in Los Angeles.
Johnson now takes three pills, twice a day. He claims they are “affordable and available for everyone.” And they seem to work, as he’s not getting any sicker. In fact, he’s working 16 hour days at age 51.
He’s also helping others to avoid illness.
Magic has invested millions into the inner city through his businesses. His foundation, in addition to its other admirable efforts, is on the verge of opening a seventh AIDS Healthcare Foundation-sponsored clinic, where folks can get their HIV meds for free.
On the floor, Magic returned to play his final NBA All-Star game in February 1992 His 25 points, including a long three-point shot to end the game in classic Hollywood fashion, earned him his second All-Star MVP award. He participated in the original basketball Dream Team during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Spain, leading the USA to the gold medal.
In 1994, when the Lakers were suffering through their worst season since the 1970s, he stepped in as coach for the final 16 games. He returned again to play the last 32 games of the 1995-96 season, averaging 15 points, seven assists, and six rebounds per game. After a first-round playoff loss, he retired for the final time.
With the assistance of other athletes inflicted with AIDS, like tennis great Arthur Ashe, who died of the disease in 1993, Magic has rebuffed the misinformation about how AIDS is contracted and proven that it is not a disease only found in Africa or that it affects only homosexuals and drug addicts. Ashe acquired it from a blood transfusion; Johnson has said he contracted it through a promiscuous heterosexual lifestyle.
Twenty years is a long time. George H.W. Bush was president in 1991, and today’s college sophomores were not even alive. But Earvin “Magic” Johnson most assuredly is.
As LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke recently observed, “Monday is not the 20th anniversary of a death, but perhaps the most stirring rebirth in the history of American sports.”