Where were you on Nov. 7, 1991 at 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time? For those over the age of 30, it was one of the most surreal and seminal moments in the history of American sports and pop culture as NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced to the world that he was HIV positive.
“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers,” Johnson said in front of a throng of stunned reporters in Inglewood, Calif. and to a worldwide audience. “I want to make clear to you that I do not have the AIDS disease. I plan on going on and living a long time, bugging you guys (reporters) as I always have, being with the Lakers and the league and hopefully David (Stern) will have me.”
The announcement was greeted by stunned silence in the Forum Club at the Great Western Forum and sent shockwaves throughout the county. In attendance at the announcement was Johnson’s wife Cookie — whom he had just married earlier that year — along with his Lakers teammates, NBA legend Jerry West (who was the Lakers’ general manager at the time), and NBA commissioner David Stern.
WATCH ARCHIVAL NBC NEWS FOOTAGE OF MAGIC JOHNSON’S ANNOUNCEMENT:
Johnson — the 1979 NCAA champion at Michigan State, five-time NBA champion, three-time league Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA Finals MVP, and future Hall of Famer — was seen as a dead man. It wasn’t a matter of if he was going to die, but when.
“All of us thought it was a death sentence,” said Pat Riley, Johnson’s coach with the Lakers from 1981-1990, in this Sunday’s New York Times. “I felt so sad for him because if you knew him — I mean, really knew him like I knew him — then you understood that he was only about living life.”
In 1991, being HIV positive was a veritable death sentence as the medications were often experimental or too expensive for most people to afford. Advancements in AIDS medications have dropped the death rate by nearly 80 percent.
Where there used to be “cocktails” of five pills taken up to four times per day, are now reduced to one or two pills or injections of medications to treat the disease. Johnson told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times that he takes three pills, twice a day.
“It’s three pills that anyone can get,” said Johnson, whose doctors have sworn him to secrecy of revealing what they are to prevent people from self-medicating. “They are affordable and available for everyone. But just because it’s my mix doesn’t mean it’s your mix.”Around the country, newspapers were already writing Magic’s obituary and television stations had obit pieces at the ready for his inevitable death due to the disease. Speculation ran rampant that Johnson was either gay or a drug user.
Johnson later acknowledged in an interview that he contracted the disease, which was discovered during a physical for a new life insurance policy, from reckless unprotected heterosexual sex. He vowed that day to become an advocate for safe sex.
“Sometimes you’re a little naïve about it and think it could never happen to you,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes we think only gay people can get it or ‘It’s not gonna happen to me’, and here I am saying it can happen to me. Even me, Magic Johnson, it can happen.”
His HIV announcement also brought a lot of attention in the black community who, as of 2008, make up 42 percent of HIV/AIDS cases in the country. Television shows, movies, and especially hip-hop — with everyone from A Tribe Called Quest, to Ice Cube, to Snoop Dogg to TLC — took the message of safe sex to the streets.
It didn’t immediately eliminate the ignorance that still surrounded the disease, however. Magic came back to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game in Orlando, where he won his second and final All-Star MVP award, finishing with 25 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.
The game was capped Johnson by hitting an iconic 3-pointer over longtime rival Isiah Thomas to cap the victory for the Western Conference. Johnson went on to play for the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, winning the gold medal for the United States.
Johnson’s play in Barcelona led him to attempt an NBA comeback in 1992 with the Lakers. That comeback ended quickly after fear of the disease forced him to abandon the attempt.
“Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me,” Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone told the New York Times on Nov. 1, 1992. Malone was also one of Johnson’s teammates in Barcelona. “They can’t tell you that you’re not at risk, and you can’t tell me there’s one guy in the NBA who hasn’t thought about it.”
That same season, the NBA implemented several precautionary measures on AIDS including the current rule that players who get cut during a game must immediately leave the floor and are not allowed to return until the bleeding is stopped. Trainers were also instructed to wear latex gloves while treating players, and they must separately handle towels and other items.
The NBA Players Association sent out a brochure to every NBA player stating that HIV is not spread through contact during sports. Johnson eventually coached the Lakers’ final 16 games in 1994 before coming back as a player in 1996, playing the final 32 games for the Lakers then retiring for good.
Magic has gone on to become an ambassador for HIV/AIDS, a spokesman for multiple companies — most recently partnering with fellow MSU alum and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert for a massive project in project in Detroit — and minority owner of the Lakers.
He still makes appearances at high schools and colleges speaking about HIV prevention.
On that afternoon 20 years ago, he felt he could live a long, healthy life through medication and maintaining a positive attitude and he has clearly succeeded. He does warn, however, that he’s not cured.
“I’m not cured, but the HIV is asleep deep in my body,” Johnson said. “Every day, I just do what I’m supposed to do. The best doctors and medicine in the world can’t save you if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”