(Magic, a young friend and an unidentified middle aged white gent puruse a beta version of Heather Hunter’s new website)
Today marks the 15 Anniversary of Earvin “Magic” Johnson announcing his (first) retirement from basketball after testing positive for HIV. While the LA Times doesn’t consider the occasion worthy of much comment, Fox Sports’ Elliot Kalb attests, “Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. This wasn’t just any basketball player, or any retirement. And this wasn’t just any disease.”
At the time, the announcement sounded very much like a death sentence for Magic. At the time, it was. One headline the following day to a sidebar story on Magic was chillingly succinct: “Magic’s life expectancy uncertain.” That article began this way: “Now that Magic Johnson has been diagnosed as having the virus that causes AIDS, he could live for as little as months or for as long as a decade, physicians said …”
On a subliminal level, it was the end of a lifestyle that many men (not just professional athletes) engaged in. No longer would it be possible to have multiple sex partners without thinking of ” or paying ” the consequences. The same week that Johnson announced that he had tested positive from having unprotected sex with women, Wilt Chamberlain (one of the very best players in NBA history) was promoting his book, in which he claimed to have had sex with 20,000 different women. AIDS had been in the public consciousness since 1981, but at the time it was largely viewed as a disease that only homosexual men contracted.
“Every person remembers where they were when they found out,” New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said recently. “He told me and Mark (Aguirre) and we talked and cried.”
Neither Kalb nor Thomas are overestimating the impact of the news. The outpouring of grief was considerable, as was the public speculation about how Johnson had contracted the virus (for the pre-internet era, there was some heavy dirt flying around). Karl Malone was amongst those who opposed Magic returning to the NBA in ’92-’93 and while he’s since reconsidered his stance, said dispute was not amongst the league’s proudest moments.