On November 7, 1991, former Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced his retirement from the NBA. His sudden announcement shocked the sports world; the reason for his announcement extended further – it transcended sports. The future Hall-of-Famer revealed he had been diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
“You’re just floored, and you just don’t know what to do,” Johnson said, reflecting back on his announcement. “And then you didn’t know what it meant to you, because at the time everybody assumed that having HIV was a death sentence.”
Twenty years later and Johnson is still alive, fulfilling the promise he made in 1991 to go on “living for a long time.” Sure, Johnson has been benefited by his ability to pay for expensive drugs and treatments that few others could afford, famously mocked by South Park.
AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho explained to CBS News, “In 1991, about 10 years into the known epidemic, there were still only a few medications that could be used to treat HIV infections, so most people went on to to die within a few years of diagnosis. And Magic Johnson felt no different from anybody else.”
In a post on the Los Angeles Times, Johnson recalls the first three thoughts that flashed in his head after Laker team physician Dr. Michael Melman revealed the diagnosis.
Disbelief — he wondered how he had contracted the disease and demanded up to three tests before reality settled in.
Anxiety — how would he tell his wife, Cookie, of his infidelities and how would this affect both her health and their yet-to-be born son, E.J.?
Determination — even if he couldn’t truly digest the news, he vowed it wouldn’t temper his infectious optimism.
Johnson said the devastating news floored him as he tried to digest why and how it had happened. “I had to pick myself up off the ground because I didn’t know what that meant for me.” Johnson said.
But it is his infectious spirit of determination and never-ending optimism that have made him the face of HIV during the past two decades.
Looking back on that announcement and what happened in the years following with Johnson’s career, Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum said he thinks Johnson was probably the “best” person to get the illness, because of his ability to reach the public.
“Because of being Magic, I think it, rather than being a joke, or something they made fun of, people had to take it seriously, because he was a spokesperson for the game. … You had to take it seriously when Magic had the disease, and I think he was probably the ‘best’ person to get it.”
Back then, the HIV virus and the AIDS disease were primarily considered homosexual illnesses. For someone of Johnson’s status, a heterosexual, married man, the revelation was ground-breaking.
University of Central Florida Professor Phillip H. Pollock III argues that having a famous heterosexual acknowledge his H.I.V.-positive status changed how the problem of AIDS was “constructed” in the public sphere:
“It took dramatic symbolism to communicate this construction of the problem to the public at large, to disrupt the way AIDS was discussed and argued in families, among peers and co-workers, and in other social settings. As we have seen, that was the role — and may define the legacy — of Magic Johnson.”
Although Johnson would later make a brief return to the NBA, he never resurrected his career. But, because of his NBA pedigree, which included five league championships, he was a major public figure and vowed to be a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS, which 1 million people in the United States currently have, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Worldwide, 33 million people have HIV or AIDS, none more famous than Johnson who established a self-named foundation through which he has been fighting to keep that number from growing.
Video courtesy VideoLonghorn via YouTube and graphic courtesy David T. Griffin.