The Day Magic Johnson Changed the World

Discussion in 'Sports Zone' started by Deb, Nov 7, 2006.

  1. Deb

    Deb Zoner

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    The day Magic Johnson changed the world

    Elliott Kalb / Special to
    Posted: 5 hours ago

    Every generation, it seems, has a moment in time in which something happens that affects everyone.

    For folks a little older than me, there was a November day in 1963, when news of President Kennedy's assassination shocked the world.

    For my generation, it was a November afternoon in 1991, 15 years ago when a different shocking announcement literally changed the world.

    The announcement, of course, was that Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, was retiring because he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. This wasn't just any basketball player, or any retirement. And this wasn't just any disease.

    At the time, the announcement sounded very much like a death sentence for Magic. At the time, it was. One headline the following day to a sidebar story on Magic was chillingly succinct: "Magic's life expectancy uncertain." That article began this way: "Now that Magic Johnson has been diagnosed as having the virus that causes AIDS, he could live for as little as months or for as long as a decade, physicians said ..."

    On a subliminal level, it was the end of a lifestyle that many men (not just professional athletes) engaged in. No longer would it be possible to have multiple sex partners without thinking of — or paying — the consequences. The same week that Johnson announced that he had tested positive from having unprotected sex with women, Wilt Chamberlain (one of the very best players in NBA history) was promoting his book, in which he claimed to have had sex with 20,000 different women. AIDS had been in the public consciousness since 1981, but at the time it was largely viewed as a disease that only homosexual men contracted.

    "Every person remembers where they were when they found out," New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said recently. "He told me and Mark (Aguirre) and we talked and cried."

    Even other NBA players who were in the league at the time who weren't close friends with Johnson were still stunned by the news.

    "I was with Portland at the time, real early in my career," Robinson recalled. "I heard about it before the press conference, and just prayed that it was just a rumor. I didn't believe it. The only thing comparable to me was hearing the news that Len Bias had died suddenly. You just didn't want to accept the news. I felt for him."

    I watched Earvin's press conference from Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks had a game that night. To say the entire Garden was deflated was to put it mildly. I remember being surprised a few months earlier, in June at the 1991 NBA Finals, when I had read an article that talked about a healthy but aging Magic Johnson possibly playing only one or two more years. It didn't seem possible, as Magic had finished 1991 as second in the MVP voting to Michael Jordan.

    Magic in both times sad (at his announcement that he was HIV-positive in 1991) and happy (at a recent ceremony in which Lakers owner Jerry Buss received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). (Getty Images/AP Photo)

    I had been part of the television network coverage for the 1991 McDonald's Open — an international basketball competition featuring an invited NBA team (this time, the Lakers) against champion clubs from other countries. I learned that Magic Johnson was a very popular figure in Europe — far bigger than I had imagined. He was one of the most famous — and popular and beloved — figures in the world. All I could think of when watching the Nov. 7 press conference on television was the movie Pride of the Yankees, when a dying Lou Gehrig told the Yankee Stadium crowd, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." I heard the words coming from Magic, about how it could happen to anyone. I heard Magic say that he's going to go on, and beat it. I heard how he vowed to become a spokesman for the disease.

    I admired how he stood up and announced his fate to the world. I admired his courage, but thought it was an act. He couldn't have been so upbeat. How could any 32-year-old newly married man with so much to live for be so upbeat announcing this news?

    But he was ... and has been since that day 15 years ago.

    Soon after his retirement, I had a chance to work with him when he became a television analyst. He put everyone at ease. He talked to everyone on a personal level. How could I hope to have a conversation with one of the most powerful and recognizable figures in the world, for instance?

    Magic made it impossible to be anything but your best friend. He remembered your favorite NFL team. He shared stories about his wife telling him he was gambling too much at the casinos. Even Magic had fears and worries about parenting toddlers, and worrying about their safety. If Magic noticed that all of a sudden, someone was taping and labeling his water bottles, he never let on.

    And he did more than just talk basketball, or fight the disease for himself. He did more than any politician could have done to raise money and increase awareness for the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There's only been one athlete (Muhammad Ali) that comes close to doing as much for the worldwide community as Johnson has accomplished. The difference is that Magic has gotten bigger (literally and figuratively) after announcing his HIV. Ali — still a revered and beloved worldwide figure — shows the effects of Parkinson's disease. Magic still has his voice, and his body, and his smile.

    Earvin has revitalized neglected communities by bringing Magic Johnson Theatres and retail centers into inner cities. He opened a series of 24-hour Fitness Magic Johnson clubs in minority areas. He had done everything from launching a platinum recording artist to hosting a talk show. His Magic Johnson Foundation raises money to fund community-based organizations serving the educational, health, and social needs of children residing in inner cities communities and HIV/AIDS organizations specializing in education, prevention, and care.

    "It will be hard to find a person who has gotten more out of every single day of his life," said longtime friend Thomas.

    According to the Center for Disease Control, at the end of 2003, over a million persons in the United States were living with HIV/AIDS, with 24-27% undiagnosed and unaware of their HIV infection. CDC has estimated that approximately 40,000 persons become infected with HIV each year in the United States. No longer is it the shocking apparent "death sentence" that it was not a generation ago. There are powerful combinations of drugs that have allowed patients — with far less resources than Johnson — to lead normal lives, while managing their HIV.

    I am not a person that lives their life believing in preordained fate. Yet it is hard to believe anything else other than Magic Johnson being destined to test positive for this disease for a reason.

    Magic has spent the last third of his life in the public eye fighting his HIV, after spending the previous 15 years thrilling the world on the basketball court, both at the college level and in the NBA. This is one anniversary — and one life — that should be celebrated every year.

    Elliott Kalb is a frequent contributor to
  2. Aikbach

    Aikbach Well-Known Member

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    This changed the world? A famous man had the money to cope with AIDS?

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