By Marvin Gapultos
November 7, 1991.
I was in the eighth grade, and at that time, I usually rode the bus home from school. But for some reason or another, I had to stay later than usual on this particular day. Maybe it was detention (doubtful); maybe it was some sort of after school study group (this was more likely, I was a nerd). I don’t remember why, exactly, I had missed the bus that day.
But I do remember walking to the payphones (yes, payphones) with my buddy, CJ, that afternoon to call for a ride home. When we got to the payphones in front our junior high, I pulled a quarter out of my pocket, stuck it in the phone and dialed home.
And then the world changed.
My older brother answered the phone.
Older Brother: Hello.
Me: Hey, can you tell mom to pick me up?
Brother: You hear about Magic?
Me: Magic? What do you mean?
Brother: Magic Johnson has AIDS!
Me: What? WHAT???!!!
Brother: Magic has AIDS and he’s retiring!
Me: No he doesn’t. Whatever. Just have mom come pick me up. CLICK.
I abruptly hung up the phone. I was angry, and confused, and annoyed. Why would my brother say something so crazy, something so awful to me? My brother had to be fucking with me. After all, this was the same guy who told me there was no Santa Claus.
CJ must’ve seen the angry, confused, and annoyed look on my face after I hung up the phone.
CJ: “What’s up? You need a ride or something?”
Me: “My brother just told me Magic Johnson has AIDS and he’s retiring.”
CJ (with equal parts venom and loathing): “Your brother’s a liar. He’s full of shit.”
Me: “I know. What a fucking dick.”
To say the least, CJ and I were both genuinely disgusted by what we thought, at the time, was a horrible joke.
Like most kids who grew up in Southern California during 80s and 90s, CJ and I both idolized Magic Johnson. Magic was more than just a role model. If you grew up playing basketball, like we did, Magic was God. And my brother had just blasphemed our God. Strange thing was, my brother also worshipped Magic.
Something didn’t feel quite right.
CJ and I then walked out and sat on the brick wall in front of our school to wait for our respective rides home. Soon, CJ’s dad drove up in his blue van. As CJ got up to leave, we noticed that his dad had gotten out of the van and started walking over to us.
As CJ’s dad came closer, I could see pain in his face. He looked as if he needed to tell us something, but couldn’t. He looked as if someone had just died.
CJ’s Dad: “You boys hear about Magic?”
And with that simple question, CJ’s dad had confirmed the worst. CJ and I immediately knew that my brother wasn’t full of shit. We looked at each other with ashen faces, mouths agape. CJ then slinked to his van and drove off with his dad. And I was left alone, in shock.
Within minutes, my mother pulled up to the school. I got in her car not wanting to look at her, and I flipped the radio on. I was still hoping there was some kind of mistake with this tragic, Magic news. But no matter what station I turned to, they all confirmed that Magic Johnson had contracted the HIV virus and he was retiring from the NBA immediately.
For the next few minutes I hadn’t heard anything my mom was saying to me. I was transfixed on the radio. Suddenly, we pulled into the parking lot of a grocery store. My mother had to shop for a few things before we went home, but I said I’d wait for her in the car.
As soon as my mother was out of sight, I rolled up the car windows.
And then I cried.
I cried like I’d never cried before. Or since.
Each time someone had passed by the car, I would duck my head between my knees, try to compose myself, and wipe my face on my sleeve, only to start crying again once I sat back up and the coast was clear.
I sat in that parked car and remembered Magic’s baby hook against the hated Celtics in 1987.
I remembered the final seconds of Game 7 in 1988 when Magic stole the ball from Isiah and the Pistons (another player and team, believe it or not, that I cheered for when they weren’t playing the Lakers).
And I remembered Magic’s recent showdown with MJ in the ’91 Finals — Magic lost, but this would be the year he would avenge that loss to the younger Jordan, or so I thought.
Being a 13-year old kid, I knew little, if anything, about HIV and AIDS. The man I emulated in my driveway — with my wannabe baby hooks — would be dead soon. The man I mimicked on the playground — with my not-so-crisp no-look bounce passes — would die in a matter of months. This is what I thought, alone in my mother’s car that day.
When we finally made it home that evening, I was expecting to see a downtrodden Johnson on television, as I knew the networks would be covering the story all night. And yet, there he was at the podium for his press conference. Calm. Cool. Collected. And he was even smiling.
“I plan on going on, living for a long time,” Johnson said that day. Despite my fears earlier that afternoon, after watching Magic’s press conference for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel… hopeful.
A lot has happened in the 20 years since that sad, strange November day. The following year, I went on to play basketball for my high school team. And by “play” I mean “ride the bench”. I never could perfect that baby hook (I was too short), and I always seemed to throw that no-looker out of bounds (I never really had a great handle).
But Magic’s influence on me, and the rest of the world, transcended the basketball court. What little we knew about HIV and AIDS was transformed thanks to Magic’s efforts to educate and inform via his Magic Johnson Foundation. From Magic, we learned that contracting the AIDS virus was not a death sentence. From Magic, we learned to understand, rather than to fear.
Twenty years later, Magic Johnson is very much alive—perhaps even stronger and healthier than he was in 1991.
During a time of panic and uncertainty, Magic Johnson proved to be the bravest and most levelheaded of us all. He taught a 13-year old kid, and the rest of the world, to believe in something. We can survive. We can overcome. There’s always hope. There’s always Magic.
Marvin Gapultos runs the blog, Burnt Lumpia. His book is due out next year. He is a life-long Lakers fan.