Let’s Talk HIV :: Magic Hour
"Because of the H.I.V. virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today." --Magic Johnson, Nov. 7, 1991.
So where were you on that fateful day? I was a sophomore at Dartmouth College watching the New York Knicks play the Orlando Magic hours after Magic Johnson made a stunning live public broadcast acknowledgement that he had tested positive for HIV. That was 20 relatively long years ago today, but for me that day will always be seared in my collective consciousness as if it was only yesterday.
When I heard this surreal news it was as though I was being transported into an alternative world of disbelief. For a single, grossly obese child of an often latchkey childhood existence in Southern California, I was daily transfixed by hours upon hours bookmarked by the wonders of TV..."He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" in the mornings, "Dynasty" at primetime, and "Showtime" of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball when I returned home from grade school.
For the uninitiated, "Showtime" was a tagline used to describe their frantic and exhilarating style that was oftentimes punctuated by countless skyhooks, fast breaks, and slam dunks led by basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, and the maestro point guard himself, Magic Johnson, careening down the court.
During this gilded age of the ’80s, the Lakers won an unprecedented five world titles, many times against the vaunted Boston Celtics...the most storied franchise in NBA history.
I will not soon forget Hall of Fame local announcer Chick Hearn providing these games play-by-play and ironically proclaiming Laker victories: "This game’s in the refrigerator: the door is closed, the lights are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O’s jigglin’!"
"Because of the H.I.V. virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today," said Johnson. The worldview on HIV/AIDS seemed to shift imperceptibly at first, but dramatically in so many ways, with Magic Johnson bravely coming forward regarding his HIV dilemma and in so doing opening millions of hearts and minds around the globe by taking on the fears, misconceptions, and stigma related to AIDS and living their truth.
For most of the world June 5, 1981 is historically cited as the first date of HIV/AIDS, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published the groundbreaking report linking five cases of HIV among five young gay men.
But for me, Magic’s announcement was really the first time that HIV permeated my personal consciousness...and the immense dread of that reality struck me deep to the core.
For someone so larger-than-life to be struck in the prime of his peak athleticism by a still unknown and deeply misunderstood disease was a tragedy on an almost epic scale.
Taking advice from doctors, he retired from professional basketball and planned to use his celebrity status to help educate young people about the disease stating, "I think sometimes we think, well, only gay people can get it, that ’It’s not going to happen to me.’ And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson."
The more that I grappled with the implications of that announcement, the more I tried to deny its power and significance, in particular to people of color worldwide. Ignorance, rumors, innuendo, and panic seemed to grip the American zeitgeist in those awkward days and months following Magic’s abrupt disclosure and retirement that seemed to fixate on how and why did he get it?
Lost in the ensuring hysteria was the ironic fact that Magic Johnson had to endure the ridicule, accusations, and literal banishment from the sport and life he loved so much, largely in the private solitude of close friends and family. A painful twist of fate for someone who so thoroughly relished the spotlight and who had consistently performed so magnificently on its public stage for so long.
But it was not lost on me at the time that Johnson would have access to the finest care and treatment that for most are grimly out of reach for the bulk of the civilized world, unlike the vast majority of individuals who didn’t and still don’t have life-saving drugs to this day.
People forget how challenging and different a time 1991 was; many thought it would be an immediate death sentence for him.
Instead, Magic has excelled in uncharted territory: becoming a major force of nature in the fight against AIDS combating fear and ignorance, raising needed resources and founding the exemplar Magic Johnson health clinics while also representing unprecedented business acumen in corporate America, and providing thousands of inner city people with jobs.
Johnson’s announcement has also had an indelible impact on America’s public awareness of AIDS; for example, in the month after he revealed his status, the number of people being tested for HIV in NYC increased by almost 60 percent. Indeed his greatest legacy may go beyond his purposeful HIV disclosure on Nov. 7, 1991, in that he has continued to live with dignity, courage, and grace for the past 20 years.
And Magic Johnson today remains the living embodiment of hope: representing a public and noble face of black America often left in the shadows, wonderfully representing the highest ideals of progressive public service: family, community, and empowerment.
This article is part of our "Let’s Talk HIV" series. Want to read more?
Here's the full list»