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BILL PLASCHKE

Magic Johnson remains a living symbol of hope

Twenty years after contracting the virus that causes AIDS, the former NBA great devotes much time and effort to raise money for research and is an inspiration to many.

November 05, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor rests her head on the arm of basketball legend Magic Johnson as he speaks before a fashion show at an AIDS/HIV awareness fundraiser at Santa Monica Airport.
Actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor rests her head on the arm of basketball… (Fred Prouser / Reuters )

Magic Johnson has finished giving a speech in a high school gymnasium when he asks the students if they have any questions.

A girl shyly raises her hand and moves to the microphone.

"I don't really have a question," she says. "I just want to know if I can come up there and give you a hug."

Within moments, the entire student body descends upon Johnson, grabbing his massive hands, clinging to his broad shoulders, embracing him from to shoes to smile, covering his massive body with admiration and love.

"And to think, 20 years ago, some people were afraid to touch me," Johnson says.

::

Where were you? It was 3 p.m. on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1991, and if you lived in Los Angeles, you know where you were.

It was our Kennedy assassination moment, our Challenger space shuttle moment, a moment when the Southland lost its sports innocence.

Where were you? I was home on vacation after spending the summer covering the Dodgers for this newspaper. I was watching television while my two young children played in the background. Soon they were crying because their father was crying, and at the time I didn't even know Magic Johnson.

The greatest Laker ever announced he was retiring at age 32 because he had contracted one of the most awful diseases imaginable.

"Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today," Johnson said in a packed room at the Forum.

We shuddered. We froze. Then we called everyone we knew, and into the phone together, all of us at once, we screamed.

Did the most alive athlete in the history of Los Angeles really just announce he was dying?

At the time, it was assumed that everyone who had the HIV virus would eventually contract AIDS, which meant Magic Johnson would be gone in 10 years. Those were the statistics. That was the reality.

There was only one smile at the news conference, only one mention of hope. It came from Johnson himself, and we pitied him for it.

"I plan to go on living for a long time," he said, and you probably did not believe him.

We did not know. How did he know?

Monday is not the 20th anniversary of a death, but perhaps the most stirring rebirth in the history of American sports.

Twenty years after contracting a disease that was supposed to kill him, Magic Johnson is killing the disease by using his celebrity to raise millions for AIDS research.

Twenty years after disappearing from a basketball court where he had won five NBA championships, Magic Johnson has made an even bigger impact on the rest of the world, using his smarts to invest millions into the inner city through his businesses.

Twenty years later, there are many people in this country who consider Magic Johnson to be one of our greatest sports figures even though they never saw him play and know little about sports. Who else has such stature? Jackie Robinson? Muhammad Ali? Who else?

"I have to tell you, I'm proudest of my life off the court," Johnson says. "There will always be great basketball players who bounce that little round ball, but my proudest moments are affecting people's lives, effecting change, being a role model in the community."

Twenty years after the announcement, I am reminiscing with Johnson about his wondrous journey from darkness into light, and suddenly he wants to make another announcement.

"We're on the verge of opening a seventh AHF Magic Health Clinic," he says, referring to his AIDS Healthcare Foundation-sponsored storefronts. "All these people all over the country can come in and get their HIV meds for free. Can you imagine?"

Honestly? No, I never imagined any of this. Did anybody but him?

::

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Magic Johnson HIV announcement wasn't the term "HIV," but the word "announcement."

He didn't have to announce it. He didn't have to tell anybody, ever. He could have retired under the guise of a neck injury that put him in danger of paralysis. He could have said he was retiring because of family issues.

Only his doctors knew of his HIV, and they were silenced by patient confidentiality laws. If it never became AIDS, who would ever know?

The man who made what still might be the most unsettling admission in sports history never had to say anything.

"No, I didn't, and I thought of that," Johnson says. "I thought a lot about that."

He says he thought of the prejudices against people with HIV. He thought of the slams and the slurs and the rumors about his personal life. He said that after the diagnosis he drove around town having living nightmares.

"There was going to be a backlash, and it was going to be bad, and I knew it," he says.

But he also knew of Elizabeth Glaser, the HIV-positive wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser. Despite being in the public eye, Glaser became a leading AIDS activist before her death in 1994. Johnson saw her bravely fighting against the disease from her Hollywood pulpit, so he called her several times for advice.

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