Sunday, November 7, 2010

November 7, 1991: The Announcement

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was one of the most shocking announcements in sports, one of the days where people will remember where they were when they heard it. On November 7, 1991, standing in front of a microphone at the Great Western Forum, a vague look of fear in his eyes, Magic Johnson announced to a stunned world that he had contracted HIV and would have to retire immediately.

Stunned isn't a strong enough word. Here was this feared but unknown disease, one that most people were starting to become aware of but were still of the belief that it was restricted to drug users and gay men, that it wasn't capable of becoming "mainstream." And here was one of the world's most famous athletes, a man in perfect physical condition and in the prime of his career, standing in front of everybody saying he had "attained" HIV.

People's reactions were immediate and predictable. First was the shock: Magic Johnson was going to die. In most people's minds, that was the only possible final result; a diagnosis of HIV in 1991 was a death sentence, and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

The next reaction was surprise: Magic Johnson is gay? To most people, that was the only explanation for how he got this disease. Even medical professionals at the time believed AIDS was restricted to the gay community, that the only exception was people who had shared needles while taking drugs. So Magic had to be gay. But what about his wife? Magic denied this, of course, because he wasn't gay.

What happened next has come to define Magic Johnson's life just as much as his basketball prowess. He became an ambassador for the disease. What was viewed as a death sentence when he uttered those stunning words in 1991 became a learning opportunity, a chance for the American public to find out more about this previously mysterious disease.

But first, Magic had to come clean. After first saying he didn't know how he got HIV, he later admitted to having unprotected sex with scores of women while he was playing. That meant that yes, you could get HIV through heterosexual sex.

The next thing Magic did was make a comeback. After retiring for the 1991 season after his diagnosis, he was voted to play in the 1992 All Star game anyway, and despite outspoken fears from his competitors about catching the disease, he played and won the MVP award. Then, he was chosen to play on the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics. There, he spread knowledge about the disease by simply showing up to play. It was possible for a man with HIV to life a healthy, athletic lifestyle.

And that's when it started to sink in to people. HIV and AIDS weren't synonymous. Yes, AIDS was caused by HIV, but simply having HIV did not mean a person had AIDS. Magic was proving this. A diagnosis of HIV did not have to mean the end of a person's productive life.

It's now 2010. It has been 19 years since Magic Johnson shocked the world by admitting to having HIV, 19 years since he said the words that most people equated to a death sentence. At the time, absolutely nobody thought that he would still be alive 19 years later. Most would have considered him lucky if he made it 9 years. But turn on the NBA broadcasts on TNT, and look at Magic. He looks like any other retired athlete who put on a few too many pounds after stepping away from the game. He looks nothing like the frightening pictures of people in their final days in their battle with AIDS, the people that seem to be all skin and bones.

And that's Magic's biggest legacy. He didn't have to say a word, didn't have to raise a cent for AIDS research and awareness. He just had to live his life. By living his life, by not letting his HIV diagnosis define him, Magic Johnson gave everybody hope.

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