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Twenty years later, Magic Johnson is 'living proof' of surviving HIV

When the Lakers star guard told the world on Nov. 7, 1991, that he was HIV-positive, many thought they would watch him quickly wither away. Instead, Magic became a major face in the fight against AIDS.

November 06, 2011|By Diane Pucin

And not all players were unconcerned about playing basketball with Johnson. Fellow 1992 Olympic Dream Team member Karl Malone was most outspoken about his fears.

"Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me," Malone told a reporter in New York in 1992. "I get these every night, every game. They can't tell you that you're not at risk, and you can't tell me there's one guy in the NBA who hasn't thought about it."

Charles Barkley, also a teammate of Johnson's on the 1992 Olympic team, said he cried when Johnson made his announcement. He said he was also aware of NBA players besides Malone who were hesitant to, as Barkley said, "be in the same building with Magic."

"I was cool with it," Barkley said. "I had known people with AIDS before. The thing about Magic was that he handled it all very well, the criticism, whatnot. I think that's just his personality, being able to handle stuff."

Kathleen Hessert, founder and manager of Sports Media Challenge, a company that offers media and communication training for athletes and coaches, said that if Johnson had made his announcement today, in a world where social media offers instant communication via Twitter and blogs and Facebook, Johnson might have suffered much more public criticism and scrutiny.

"The degree of civility that Magic experienced at that time," Hessert said, "you won't find that now." She compared what Johnson might have had to endure to what has happened to Tiger Woods in the last two years since the revelations of Woods' marital infidelity became public.

"Twitter, blogs, those things would have been turned upside down by Magic," she said. "I call it 'the swarm.' There would have been panic because, at the time, we all didn't understand HIV and AIDS."

Now, 20 years later, what Barkley and Smith and Mullin all remember is that Johnson was voted a starter for the 1992 All-Star game and that he represented the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics. Johnson hit a three-point shot as the final basket of that All-Star game. "I can still see that ball going in," Smith said. "And everybody ran out to hug him and kiss him."

NBA Commissioner David Stern, who stood by Johnson's side on the day the announcement was made, said, "Magic changed the debate about HIV on a global scale because the person suddenly afflicted was a beloved athlete of world renown. We all assumed he would be dead soon and he was busy reassuring all of us."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dalina Castellanos contributed to this report.

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