CHICAGO – Sports is fun, and sports is games. But it can often be so much more than just fun and games, the toy store of the real world. Sometimes it can be the leader of society, and not just its weather vane, not the remnant Of the public’s conventional wisdom but the leader in societal change for the better.
Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the day of infamy in the NBA, the day Magic Johnson, arguably the most popular and well liked played in NBA history, announced his retirement from basketball.
“Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,” Johnson said evenly in the most stunning press conference in NBA history.
It was considered a death sentence. Even Magic’s s doctors were talking about three years for him to live. But knowing Magic, we all knew we were going to have to watch him die in front of us, that Magic’s life more than anyone’s was not only the game but the public, the game’s ambassador like no one ever before or since.
I was president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association for eight years. During that time we decided to create an award to honor a player annually who combines the best in excellence on the court with a combination of personal and professional relations and magnetism with the public and media. I was to name the award since I’d seen the greats like Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain play and have been around and interviewed basically every top player in the history of the NBA back to George Mikan. It was an easy decision. I named it the Magic Johnson Award. No one ever has personalized the game like Magic.
And here he was dying right in front of us.
That’s what we all believed, and not only that he was contagious. No one knew much about the disease at the time other than the lack of a cure and the fear of infection by anything from saliva to even being touched.
Perhaps worse than death for Magic Johnson was a sentence of public isolation.
The NBA in the person of commissioner David Stern was having none of that.
Magic was part of the NBA family, and to the surprise of no one after a few months Magic was bored, was asymptomatic and wanted to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. He’d been on the ballot since his retirement announcement didn’t come until the season started. I remember him looking tired in that 1991 Finals against the Bulls, but why not. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were harassing him all over the court, pressing and pressuring like no one else did. HIV? What are you talking about? Magic only found out
Because Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted to add a $3 million bonus to his contract and Magic had to take a physical for the insurance policy. He called Michael Jordan after finding out. Jordan was driving, pulled his car over and began to weep.
“When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person,” Johnson told Lakers trainer Gary Vitti after learning of the diagnosis. “I’m gonna do something really good with this. I’m gonna beat this.”
“I’ll live,” Magic would say later. “I won’t die. And if I do die, I’ll be happy. I’ve had a great life.”
That sounded like Magic, but we all knew better, and Magic sensed it as well.
Magic was married to longtime girlfriend Cookie just six weeks before getting the diagnosis and she was pregnant. His son is healthy to this day. They’d had a contentious relationship over Magic’s many dalliances with women. Johnson attributed the HIV to unprotected sex with many partners. After getting the diagnosis, he tried to call them to let them know but couldn’t remember all their names or who they were.
But the NBA wasn’t going to abandon Magic.
Players were leery when hearing Magic wanted to play. Karl Malone famously asked how you could defend Magic because of fear of contact. Other players said so more privately. Owners, too, expressed reservations. But Stern was stern. He organized educational sessions with doctors for teams about the disease. The NBA implemented procedures in effect to this day regarding using gloves for treatment during games. There were stories at the time of kids being kicked out of school, rejected and stigmatized because of the HIV virus.
The NBA would change the world.
Magic played in the 1992 All-Star Game and was the star, a 3-pointer at the end with Isiah Thomas rushing out to hug him and other players surrounding him. He was voted MVP. He played on the 1992 Dream Team and toured with the USA team and enjoyed the nightlife in Barcelona. Then came the 1992-93 season. Players, coaches, executives, owners, most privately and anonymously, questioned Magic’s return. Even some of Magic’s Lakers teammates. Magic backed off, but Stern was behind Magic all the way as he and the NBA were educating.
Magic said he wanted to help show the world you can live with the disease, that you don’t have to be hidden from public view and life. The NBA made that so.
Johnson could not stay away; everyone knew that. He loved the game, and everything about it. He was an ambassador for love of life. Basketball was his life, and the NBA wasn’t going to take it away. Stern made it clear with medical support to owners and executives and players alike that it was safe to play with Magic and anyone avoiding it was doing so akin to racial or religious bias. It would not be tolerated.
The NBA long has been a leader in sporting equal rights with the first black coach, the first black executive, the first black all starting lineup, the first female official, the first black owners, the first openly gay officials and team executives. The NBA is the rainbow of worldwide sports. And with Magic the NBA showed the world you can and needed to accept people with this dreaded disease, erased misconceptions and normalized an irrational fear.
Magic Johnson 25 years later as an AIDS activist and educator has become the face of the disease.
Magic initially demurred after the 1992 Olympics with questions about the disease, but he came back to coach the Lakers in 1994 and then came back as a Lakers player in the 1995-96 season. But he’d stayed way too long and changed his body too much over the years, his drug treatment has become relatively routine for others infected with the virus to make enough impact any more as a player. But he did return and go out on his own accord from the NBA. He later would put together some touring All Star teams and even play in a European league. But his impact also would be in the community where as a businessman he opened movie theaters, coffee shops and other enterprises in poor neighborhoods often ignored by mainstream businesses.
He became a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers in baseball, but more so a spokesman and activist for the disease. His foundation has raised millions of dollars for AIDS treatment, research, education and screening.
Millions still die from the disease, but they don’t live with it or the HIV virus segregated and rejected by society.
In many ways, Magic Johnson became the face of the disease, a symbol of the hope and possibilities. You can live a lively, productive life even with the HIV virus that Magic says is sleeping in his body. With exercise, treatment, early detection, screening and education you can remain a prominent member of society and live out your dreams.
Magic Johnson has been able to do this not because he was wealthy as an NBA player. But because the NBA stepped forward as a model for the rest of the world to show loyalty and fight fear, bias and ignorance. Magic Johnson’s story 25 years later is one of optimism, hope and confidence. The NBA was there to show the way rather than be swept up in the fear and loathing of an uninformed populace. The NBA is a place for great games. It proved with Magic Johnson it’s also a place for great leadership. It can be done with the power of sports.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”