Wednesday, February 9, 2011

February 9, 1992: Magic act

ORLANDO, Fla. - It was a simpler time in 1992, but that's not necessarily a good thing. The previous November, when Magic Johnson dropped the HIV bombshell, many people assumed that he was basically saying "I have less than a year to live." That was just the common viewpoint. In fact, the view was so prevalent that fans voted Johnson into the starting lineup in that season's All-Star Game, even though he didn't play a game all season. Though this sentiment was never verbalized, it was seen as almost a final thank you to Magic for his great career.

Of course, knowledge about the disease being what it was, players privately balked at having to share a court with Johnson. Karl Malone took a lot heat for publically saying he was worried about playing with Johnson that day, but he was merely saying what many other people were thinking. Many people thought it was a very serious risk to have somebody with a serious, deadly disease playing a contact sport when it isn't entirely certain yet how that disease could be spread.

Also unspoken is that it was very likely those fears that helped Johnson win the game's MVP award. Sure, his 25 points and 9 assists were both game highs, and that 3-pointer he swished to close out the game was one of the defining moments of the entire 1991-92 NBA season, but it's fairly easy to score 25 points in an exhibition game when players are subconsciously playing farther back than they normally would, just in case, you know...

But the one thing Johnson couldn't control was the opinions and fears of the players in the game. In fact, he certainly had to know they were coming. So he did the best thing he could do in that situation. He played. He joked. He high-fived and hugged. He laughed. He did everything in his power to show that he was just a guy, just a basketball player. He showed that he wasn't going to let his disease define him. And slowly, the feelings started to thaw.

That summer, when Johnson was named to the Dream Team, many of the protests and worries had dissipated. At the very least, they weren't being verbalized. After the All-Star Game, during which exactly zero of the other players on the court caught HIV from Johnson, people started to realize that maybe it was OK for someone with HIV to play basketball. By playing in the All-Star Game, Johnson showed it was OK for him to play in the Olympics. By appearing healthy and active during the Olympics, Johnson showed that maybe HIV wasn't quite as terrible as people originally thought. The education had begun.

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