In an announcement that rocked the sports world, Earvin (Magic) Johnson retired Thursday, saying he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.
Johnson, 32, the marquee name for the Lakers and the National Basketball Assn. for 12 years, learned he had the virus several weeks ago after a test administered by a life insurance company.
Steadfastly upbeat at a somber Forum press conference, flashing his trademark smile readily, Johnson vowed to become a spokesman for AIDS prevention.
"I just want to make clear, first of all, I do not have the AIDS disease," he said. "My wife is fine. She's (tested) negative.
"I plan to go on living for a long time.
"I'm going to be a spokesman for the HIV virus. I want young people to realize they can practice safe sex. Sometimes you're a little naive about it and you think something like that can never happen to you. It has happened but I'm going to deal with it. My life will go on. Life is going to go on and I'll be a happy man."
Johnson's disclosure was praised by public health officials, doctors and activists.
"I hope that Americans everywhere will understand better today that AIDS is not a remote disease that only strikes 'someone else,' " Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. "Everyone must be aware that the AIDS epidemic can reach them. I am very heartened by the announcement that in the months and years ahead, Magic Johnson will help carry a lifesaving message to young people across our nation."
Said Laker physician Michael Mellman: "What we have witnessed is a courageous act by a very special person. He is not compelled by any legal description or legal requirement to disclose what he has disclosed today.
"He is not a person who is invisible. Because of his presence and potential impact on society, with a situation that is not only serious but from which we are all at risk, I think he should not only be commended but held as a modern-day hero.
"This is a very, very special person and a very special admission."
HIV attacks the body's defenses against infection. People with full-blown AIDS, which results from the virus, develop some forms of cancer and an array of infections, including a serious form of pneumonia.
Said Mellman: Earvin Johnson has been infected with the HIV virus. He does not have AIDS. . . . There's no immediate effect on his life other than we have advised him to avoid those activities which can further impair his immune system, which is playing professional basketball."
Johnson said he had called his best friends in basketball, including Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and former coach Pat Riley to tell them. He told his current teammates in the Laker dressing room before the press conference.
Johnson had not played in the three games the Lakers have played this season, sidelined by flu. Mellman said that illness was coincidental and not related to the HIV virus.
Thursday's announcement brought to a sudden end one of the brightest of storybook careers.
The self-described shy youngster from East Lansing, Mich., led Michigan State University to a national championship in 1979, when he was 19.
A year later, he was the point guard on a Laker team in the NBA finals. In the sixth game of that series, at Philadelphia with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured, he jumped center, played all three positions, scored 42 points and had 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Lakers to a championship and certifying himself a basketball legend at 20.
He was an all-star in 11 of 12 seasons, missing only because of a knee injury.
He played in nine NBA finals and on five championship teams.
He was a three-time most valuable player and three-time MVP of the finals.
He leaves as one of the most popular players in NBA history. His endorsement income--an estimated $9 million--dwarfed his Laker salary of $3.1 million.
He promoted a series of Janet Jackson concerts. His friends included Arsenio Hall and other entertainment stars. He had a kitchen cabinet of advisers that included some of the most powerful men in Hollywood, among them Joe Smith, president of Capitol Records, and Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency. Ovitz set up the deal through which Johnson bought a one-third partnership in a Pepsi-Cola distributing plant.
"To me, he's the biggest and most recognizable star in this town," Joe Smith once said.
"I've been in Morton's when Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood were there with nobody paying any attention to them. Magic comes in and--bang!"
In a city of retiring stars, Johnson seemed omnipresent. He danced onstage at M.C. Hammer concerts. He attended Raider games every Sunday, including the one on Sept. 15 this season--the day after his wedding in East Lansing to childhood sweetheart Cookie Kelly.
There can be no doubt Johnson got the most from his career and enjoyed it.
"Basketball is going to be all I dreamed of," he said last summer. "I never thought all this would happen.