Today in History: Magic Johnson announces he has HIV and retires from basketball
This one hit me particularly hard back in the day because I had been Lakers fan all through the 80's and still believe that the 1986 Lakers are one of the best teams to ever hit the hardwood in NBA history.
I, and most other youth at the time idolized "Magic," and we collected his posters, shirts, trading cards, and most people wanted to play as the Lakers in early Lakers vs Celtics videogames. It was a strange time because back in those days HIV was still stuck in the stigma of being a disease that only affected homosexuals and drug addicts and it was going to kill you very fast if you caught it. Of course we know better than this now and Earvin Johnson is a big part of the reason why our perceptions changed.
The Year was 1991
This was a real shock to the world and in particular, to fans of basketball. Magic is considered to be one of the greatest of all time and you don't have to look very far to understand why. In his rookie season with the Lakers, he immediately took to his teammates as a force to be reckoned with. Drafted first overall he almost immediately became a leader inside the ranks of the already well-established Lakers. He averaged 18 points a game and nearly 8 assists and rebounds. Despite being 6 foot 9, he played at point guard, which if you don't know what that is, it is normally the shortest guy on the team.
This might not seem special enough to many people because we have rookies entering quite frequently into the NBA that immediately do well but Magic wasn't done impressing the world just yet. In the NBA finals, star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle and could not play in a clutch time in the series. The coach decided to put Johnson in at center which is a very bold move. Not only did Magic perform adequately, but he put up better numbers than Abdul-Jabbar normally did scoring 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals as the Lakers went on to rout the 76ers 123-107 and clench to title for Los Angeles.
Johnson would end up winning the MVP trophy as well and to this day, this is the only time that a rookie has ever accomplished such a feat (I'm looking at you LeBron.)
He continued to be a dominant name in the sport for the next decade and the Lakers would create perhaps the greatest rivalry in the history of the NBA during the year-after-year battle with the Boston Celtics that pretty much captivated everyone interested in basketball in the mid 80's.
While there were other matchups on the 2 teams that were pretty intense, nothing could equal the showdowns that would take place between Magic and Bird
Magic never really faded in his performance even when he himself discovered that he had HIV. The announcement that happened on 7-November, 1991 shocked the world.
It seems so silly now but back in the early 90's HIV and AIDS was pretty universally accepted to be a disease exclusive to homosexuals and intravenous drug users of which Magic was neither. At first I was surprised the same as everyone else was, and because I had been "trained" with the wrong information by society, I naturally assumed the Magic must be gay (it was a different time folks, don't hate on me.)
Magic went on to be a spokesperson educating the world about HIV and I don't think I am overstepping my bounds by speculating that he might actually be the critical link that reformed the world's impression about the horrible disease. It wasn't long after this announcement that one of my best friends who I had hung out with nearly every day, finally revealed that he too had HIV that he had acquired from a blood transfusion nearly a decade earlier. Things became interesting because most of us didn't know shit about the disease and questions like "how are you still alive?" would arise.
Magic is still alive now nearly 30 years later and this is accomplished via a combination of drugs that prevent HIV from progressing into AIDS. These are the same drugs that my friend, who is also an HIV educator, is on.
Magic formed his own foundation after his announcement in 1991 and accomplished a great deal as far as reducing or even eliminating the sigma associated with individuals that have HIV. He worked with Congress, The White House, and even the United Nations traveling as a speaker to raise awareness (and money) to combat what at one point was the most feared disease on the planet.
Pictured here with U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan
Johnson would later return to play again for the Lakers in 1995 and this was an extremely highly anticipated moment because even though a lot had been done to remove much of the untrue information out there surrounding people with HIV I have to admit that we were all thinking "there is no way with this degenerative disease is going to be able to compete on the highest level of the sport." Man oh man did Magic prove the world wrong!
Despite having one of the most feared and misunderstood incurable diseases in the world AND despite the fact that he was 36 years old AND despite the fact that he had not really trained to play basketball for 4 years, Magic got on the court in January and scored 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists off the bench (if you don't follow basketball this is an extraordinary accomplishment as most people who play the entire game don't get these sort of numbers.)
The Lakers went to the playoffs but were eliminated by the reigning champion Houston Rockets.
He again retired from the NBA but would later play in Sweden and also Denmark, but the sport just isn't very popular over there and despite having one of the most famous players in the world on the team, attendance was quite poor.
Today Magic is in fantastic health and is still very actively involved in the HIV / AIDS community. He also regularly serves as a commentator during NBA games and seems to be in great spirits. This is probably augmented by the fact that he is one of the most successful sports celebrities of all time an is extremely wealthy. He recently celebrated his 60th birthday and says "I plan on living for a very long time."