Last week, the New York Times published a story on a scary new casually transmitted disease that’s killed seven gay men in New York City since 2010. So far, every one diagnosed with the disease has been either a gay or bi-sexual men, and the contagion has accelerated in the past few months, bringing back a fear among the gay community that feels all too familiar.
A day after that, I interviewed British hip hop DJ Emily Rawson, who said she looked up to the late Lisa Left Eye Lopes growing up. She gushed about how Left Eye once wore a condom on her left eye in a music video to promote safe sex, at a time when the world feared AIDS. Lopes was an inspiration, Rawson told me, because she was a woman using hip hop to promote a real, scary, issue.
These two events reminded me that, yes, back on November 7th, 1991, we all thought one thing: Magic Johnson’s good as dead.
That was the day Johnson announced to the world he had contacted the HIV virus. The somber mood and eerie buzz during the press conference reflected a genuine, overwhelming sense of sadness and fear. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, we, the world, were not educated on the HIV virus, or AIDs. We thought many things — that it was a “fag disease”, that it could be transmitted through being within close proximity of an infected person — we assumed many things, and knew only one: it was a death sentence.
And so, for me to come across two incidents to reference AIDS last week reminded me how amazing it is that, today, the last thing we think of when we see Magic Johnson is a dying, or even unhealthy, man.
I’ve been seeing him, pudgy and giddy, on ABC with Bill Simmons once a week the last few weeks throughout the NBA playoffs. I laughed about his calling out, via Twitter, of Dwight Howard following the Los Angeles Lakers’ playoff defeat. I use him in NBA 2k11, running a digital fastbreak that is a mirage of Inglewood in the 80s.
Johnson has more or less kept the HIV virus in control the past two decades, though he is less defeating the disease than having it in a Roddy Piper sleeper hold — the threat is still there, but daily medication keeps the symptoms at bay.
On that day, Johnson told the world he’d walk away from his love, basketball, to take on a new role.
“I just want to say that I’m going to miss playing, [but] I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus.”
He’s kept that promise in many ways, most notably by starting a foundation in his name that funds HIV education and prevention programs in some of the country’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
But really, his first big blow to fight the stigma landed that very day at the press conference, before he finished his sentence of becoming a spokesman.
By coming forward in public, Johnson effectively sent a message to the world: this could happen to anyone. According to GQ’s amazing oral report — which you all should read — NBA players immediately cleaned up their, um, private lives, upon hearing of Johnson’s news, because NBA guys knew Johnson wasn’t gay. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Johnson couldn’t fight the ladies off with a stick — there are stories of foursomes taking place in the Lakers hot tub within an hour after a Lakers game. Let’s just say chicks weren’t there with Kurt Rambis.
Here’s AC Green, on how the news affected NBA guys:
“They heard what happened, as far as his sexual behavior, and they understood why he retired. A lot of guys wanted to make sure they weren’t going to be that next one. I remember a report that condom sales rose to an all-time high in the next few months.”
The effects of Johnson’s announcement, and the brave face he put up, obviously reached far beyond just the NBA world.
The world gave Johnson respect — for his bold announcement — immediately. Acceptance? That took time.
During the 1992 All Star Game, Johnson, who had already started his foundation and even told off George Bush for not doing more to promote AIDS awareness, wanted to make a one-time return to play in the 1992 NBA All Star game.
Some NBA players, one of whom rumored to Karl Malone, spoke against Magic’s return.
How are we so sure AIDS can’t be transmitted through playing competitive basketball?
What if he suffered a cut on the court?
Eventually, enough facts disproved those theories for Johnson to return for one night. Tim Hardaway, who would later infamously tell a radiohost “I hate gay people”, gave his starting spot to Johnson, who became Magic again — dropping a 25, 9, 5 and taking the All Star MVP.
That summer, Johnson, along with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, headlined the greatest collection of sports talent anywhere during the 92 Olympics.
Johnson felt good, and his body showed no signs of virus symptoms. So he decided to return to his love: Basketball.
Johnson announced his NBA comeback on September 29, 1992.
A month later, during an exhibition game, Johnson suffered a tiny scratch on his arms. The cut was barely visible, but when Lakers trainer Gary Vitti tended to Johnson with a band-aid, an audible grasp could be heard through the crowd. Then, complete silence.
People seated in the first few rows near the Lakers bench had horrified look on their faces, worried Johnson’s open wound might send HIV viruses through the air.
Following that incident, Johnson told himself: “No. I can’t do it now. People aren’t ready yet. People are not educated [on HIV virus] yet.”
So Johnson stepped away from the game he loves for a second time, and went to work¹.
In the grand scheme of things, Johnson’s greatest accomplishment — his best work — was done after off the basketball court. The greatest skill of Earvin “Magic” Johnson was not his uncanny court vision, deadly accurate but ugly set shot, or passing ability, but his ability to be so good at promoting HIV awareness that the virus is no longer the first thing we think of when we hear his name. When we hear Magic Johnson, we think basketball. Again.
RIP Left Eye
¹ The “work” was more than just promoting HIV awareness and helping those infected. Magic also became a mediocreTV announcer, a horrible late night talk show host, and a smart businessman.