Human Immunodeficiency Virus.
Beginning with Johnson’s announcement that he was retiring on November 7, 1991, I wrote that term many more times than I would have preferred. HIV wasn’t supposed to be part of the sports section. It belonged somewhere else.
Ultimately, however, the intrusion of HIV into basketball proved to be positive in some areas. That was depicted Sunday night in The Announcement, another of ESPN’s fine films on sports culture, which documented Johnson’s very public bout with the virus and how it played a major role in eliminating some of the ignorance surrounding the disease.
At one point during the film, Johnson says that he was both a blessing and a curse in the HIV issue – a blessing because his fame and success in dealing with the condition has helped with advances in the battle to cure AIDS, including raising massive amounts of money for research.
The curse has been that he’s made it look easy and sent a message to young people that HIV can be cured so it’s not that big of a deal.
For me, that contradiction approximates my feelings about the film. Although I spent the decade of the 1980s covering the NBA and had written many stories in the era of Magic, Michael and Larry, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch the film.
It’s too strong to say I thought it might be a blessing and a curse, but as great of an ending as the film would have –Magic is alive – I still remember that Thursday afternoon when I first got a call saying that he was going to retire. That led to a series of calls trying to determine if that was true and why. At the time, most people did not know the difference between HIV and AIDS and the first word was that it was AIDS.
So that meant: Certain death.
That’s not a good memory.
That press conference at the Forum led to a huge day in American sports journalism. The next day, writers from most of the major papers in the country traveled to Los Angeles to cover the story.
We found a dead end.
After his initial press conference, Johnson withdrew from the public scene. My memory is that only one reporter, Roy Johnson of Sports Illustrated, had extended access to him. Lon Rosen, Johnson’s agent, was accessible and pleasant, but he said Magic simply was not going to be available.
So we had to go to others, and that led to many dramatic moments for a number of writers. One of mine occurred when I went to Jerry West’s office in the Forum.
As a kid, West was my favorite player. As an adult, I’d had many dealings with him because I had covered the Mavericks and they’d had several playoff series with the Lakers. Plus the Lakers went to the Finals five times in the ‘80s and were one of the glamour franchises, so I’d written many stories about them and had talked to West many times.
When we got into West’s office, he closed the door, sat down in his chair behind his desk, put his face in both of his enormous hands and began crying. I certainly understood that, but after it went on for what seemed to be several minutes – but likely was only 20 seconds or so – I said: “Jerry, I can come back later if you want to be alone.”
“No,” he said and rubbed his eyes. “Give me a minute and I’ll be OK.”
He was . . . and we talked.
As powerful as it was to watch a legend break down like that, it’s obviously not an uplifting memory. And that was why I found the film unsettling. Like everyone else, I admire Magic Johnson for what he has accomplished. But that time period was full of distressing moments.
One of those was how I had to explain to my eight-year-old son Joe that Magic was not going to play basketball anymore and, in fact, was very sick. A few months before, I had attended Magic’s charity game for the United Negro College Fund and he was very gracious in meeting Joe and acting like he was the most important kid in the world.
We started trading kid stories and Magic told me about a conversation that he had with his son Andre, who was 10 at the time.
“My son was talking to me and he said, ‘You know, Dad, you’re the best, you’re No. 1,” Magic said. “And I said, ‘Yeah?’ And he said, ‘You’ll always be No. 1. You know that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ And he said, ‘But would you mind buying me a pair of Air Jordans?’ ”
Great story. Funny story. But writing about that story three months later under those circumstances was very unpleasant.
From an objective standpoint, I thought there were two holes in the film. One was how Magic got the virus. He admitted several times that he’d had unprotected sex, but the truth was that he was quite active on the bachelor scene, which was covered in a 1995 TV interview with Maria Shriver and many publications.
And the other was specifics on people who were supposed to be friends of Magic spreading rumors that he was gay. That was covered at the time of his first retirement and something he spoke openly about to Jackie MacMullan, who wrote When the Game was Ours with Magic and Larry Bird in 2009. In that book, Johnson publicly named Isiah Thomas as spreading the rumors, but that was not mentioned in The Announcement.
There was new ground broken in the film, however. After the revelation that he had HIV, Magic was stunned at how some friends were avoiding him, no doubt worried that the virus was contagious. During the 1991-92 season, former Lakers coach Pat Riley, then coaching the Knicks, asked Magic to come to Madison Square Garden for a workout and the media was invited.
I was at the workout and actually several of us began joking with Magic while he was shooting. It was fine that he made 18-footers, but what about 3-pointers?
As always when challenged, Magic took the bait and started knocking down 3-pointers and yakking the whole time saying, “How that? What about that? That what you wanted?” Or words to that effect.
We didn’t know the purpose of the workout at the time. We did figure that Magic missed the spotlight. And he missed basketball. But no one knew at the time that Riley was simply making a public display out of being close to Johnson, and even allowed himself to be drenched with Johnson’s sweat when they hugged after the workout.
No, HIV cannot be passed through perspiration.
In the film, Johnson said something about that workout with Riley that I never heard: “It helped me to understand that there were better days ahead,” he said. “He actually changed my life that day.”
Although there aren’t awards for such accomplishments, there is little doubt that Magic is the MVP in the battle against HIV, which the film effectively portrays.
Still, I’ll always find the story a little unsettling — not a blessing and a curse but, perhaps, troubling and uplifting.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.