20 Years Ago Today, Magic Johnson Shocked the World

“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers.” – Magic Johnson, November 7, 1991.

There are three sports moments in my life that I know exactly where I was and how I felt in that instant of time.

One is Kirk Gibson’s home run in the 1988 World Series. One  is watching Mark McGwire hit home run No. 62 to pass Roger Maris.

The third, and easily the most powerful, is when I heard that Magic Johnson was retiring from basketball because he was HIV positive.

 

I had just gotten on the bus after another mundane day in middle school and the entire bus was buzzing. I walked down the aisle of the bus looking for a seat. Everyone was talking at once and talking about the same thing. That’s how I heard the news.

The announcement spread like a shockwave, not just throughout Southern California – where kids like myself had no other basketball idol but Magic – but throughout the world.

Us middle schoolers barely knew what HIV and AIDS were, but all of a sudden we were experts. We didn’t even think Magic could have contracted the virus through sexual activity. We were aware of Ryan White, who had contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, and that was about it.

One kid suggested Magic got infected from hitting his head on the rim and bleeding on the court. We agreed that was likely the case.

I was numb with shock, sitting in a state of bewilderment.

“You mean, I can’t watch Magic Johnson play anymore? How could this be? How could someone so energetic, so wonderful at his job, have it taken away? Why did this happen?”

The bus driver had the radio on so everyone could hear the aftermath of the news. When I got home I burst into the house and watched TV the rest of the night, hoping for as much information as possible. I don’t remember what was said on TV – all I remember was the bus and the ensuing ride – I just couldn’t believe that Magic Johnson, the reason I loved basketball and the Lakers, was not going to play anymore.

Here was the best player in the league, a three-time MVP and the perhaps the greatest all-around player ever, standing in front of the world as a broken man whose extracurriculars caught up to him and forced him to quit.

My mom tried to talk to me about it – she was always good at knowing what was happening in the sports world so the two of us could talk – but I didn’t want to talk. I was upset.

I have never cried because of anything sports related. Not when I played. Not when I’ve watched. That was the one time I felt like I could have and been fine with it. It was the one time that I felt like I should.

The next morning I read every inch of the L.A. Daily News, the paper we subscribed to, about Magic. I kept those papers for years and years. I even kept the papers from when he came back as a coach and a player.

There was one lasting image from that issue. A cartoonist had drawn a young boy in a dark room, kneeling in front of his bed, his head bowed in prayer. On the wall above his bed, was a poster of Magic Johnson.

That was it. It didn’t have any words. It didn’t need any. It captured what every person was feeling.

We all prayed for Magic on that day. And, in a strange way, maybe some of those prayers have worked.

Magic’s mission in life was not to entertain us and bring us highlight reel plays leaving our mouths agape or championship banners or cheers of joy at the Forum or at home.

His work would be to spread the message of HIV and prove that, yes, 20 years later he would be alive, as he said he would be in his press conference. His work would be to give others hope, to teach them not to give up, to be the person who carried the torch for this disease and make changes.

It’s not like sending no-look passes around the court, or making baby hooks, or winning NBA titles.

It’s about lighting up a room with that famous smile, about helping out teammates – those not in purple and gold – and it’s about changing the world.

It’s doing exactly what his name implies.

It’s about bringing Magic to others.

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