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Television review: 'The Announcement'

ESPN's documentary 'The Announcement' is a moving account of Earvin 'Magic' Johnson's life before and after he announced he was HIV positive, and what the Laker meant to basketball at that time.

March 10, 2012|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Magic Johnson stuns the nation on Nov. 7, 1991, with his announcement that he has tested positive for HIV and will retire from the NBA after 12 seasons.
Magic Johnson stuns the nation on Nov. 7, 1991, with his announcement that… (Los Angeles Times )

Lakers legend and entrepreneur Earvin "Magic" Johnson made "The Announcement," an ESPN documentary about his life with a frightening diagnosis, to remind people that HIV and AIDS are still both fatal — and preventable.

"I am not cured," he says at the film's end.

Director Nelson George's moving and informative film does that and more. It highlights, among other things, the wonder that was Magic Johnson as a basketball player, the après-moi madness of L.A. in 1979, the horror of the AIDS crisis, the value and valor of frankness and, perhaps most important, why, despite all the heartbreak they cause, we still need sports heroes.

Still a showman after all these years — he recently announced the creation of his own Comcast network, Aspire — Johnson serves as narrator, telling his own story with the simple open enthusiasm that has marked his entire career, as player, activist and businessman. The youngest of a loving family, he seemed born to play basketball, his inevitable MVP status underlined by a generosity that former teammates remember to this day.

His nickname came early and obviously as he dominated not just the courts but the crowd — with his big brown eyes, megawatt smile and infectious energy, he was the very definition of sports star. When he came to Los Angeles in the 1980s, he not only helped turn the Lakers into a championship franchise, he and his on-court rival Larry Bird of the Celtics helped re-energize a sagging NBA.

And Johnson all but owned Los Angeles, drawing celebrity-studded crowds to the Forum and turning the Forum Club into a West Coast Studio 54. "It was a crazy time," says Chris Rock, who, along with Arsenio Hall, former Lakers coach Pat Riley, former teammates James Worthy and Kurt Rambis, recall the frenzy that surrounded the team in general and Johnson in particular. "I didn't drink or smoke," Johnson says," because that would get in the way of winning, but there were other things to tempt me."

"Other things" being the many women who surrounded him, separating him for some time from his college sweetheart, Cookie, whom Johnson would eventually marry. Cookie is a big part of the film as well, offering glimpses of the private Johnson in between footage of tremendous basketball and images of a superstar lifestyle.

The 1980s were also shadowed by the AIDS epidemic, but the crisis could not have seemed more removed from the world of Magic Johnson. Married, with a child on the way, he was at the top of his game when a routine blood test done in October 1991 for an insurance policy revealed he was HIV positive. Set to play an exhibition game in Utah, he was called home by his longtime agent Lon Rosen and received the devastating news.

Then he had to do what he says was the most difficult task of his life: tell his wife. Fortunately, she was not infected, but a second test revealed that the virus had progressed enough that doctors recommended Johnson immediately retire from basketball.

So, though others, including Cookie, advised privacy, Johnson called a news conference to announce, in characteristically simple and upbeat tones, that having contracted the HIV virus, he would be leaving the Lakers.

"But I am going to beat this," he said at the time, with a smile, "and I'll see you all again soon."

The announcement itself lasted less than three minutes, but clips of the visibly shocked and shaken anchors reporting the news make clear just how big the impact was. Although images of AIDS victims filled the media, many Americans still felt detached from a disease that they considered linked only to gay men and drug addicts. Now it was, presumably, going to kill someone the world knew, someone who seemed physically invincible.

Like the wonderful documentaries of ESPN's "30 for 30" series, "The Announcement" not only captures a remarkable person and an unforgettable moment, it proves once again the universal appeal and importance of professional sports — it's almost as tough to beat a good sports story as it is to beat Magic Johnson.

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