When I was a kid growing up, I fell in love with the game of basketball. When I started playing the game, I was not very good, but I would spend hours upon hours in the barn on the farm shooting and over time, I was able to become pretty good. As I would spend those countless hours shooting, I had three heroes that I looked up to when it came to the game of basketball. These three were the ones that I imagined myself being as shot after shot left my hand. These three heroes were Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.
The three of these men changed the NBA game and their legacy will live on forever in the annals of NBA history. Trust me, I was not the only one who idolized these men. Most every boy growing up during the time of their careers did. They did things on the court that did not seem possible before they came along. Magic always held a special place in my heart because of his smile. Because of his unselfishness in making those unbelievable passes to teammates. How he was not arrogant and was the ultimate team player. I was also absolutely in awe of how someone who was 6″9″ tall could handle the ball the way Magic did.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson played on five NBA championship teams, was the NBA’s MVP three times, and was a 12-time all-star selection during his career.
He was still very much in his prime when on Nov. 7,1991 Magic shocked the world at a press conference when he made the announcement that he had been diagnosed with HIV and was retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers.
Earlier this week, I watched the ESPN documentary “The Announcement” narrated by Magic and directed by Nelson George. If you have not yet had the opportunity to watch this, I would highly recommend watching it. It will be running many times over the next month. You can find the viewing schedule here.
For me, this took me back. It took me back to that day. It made me remember how shocked I was when I watched the announcement live. How could this happen? How could this happen to one of my heroes? There was so much that was unknown about HIV and AIDS back then. I didn’t really know what to think at the time when Magic first made this announcement.
Now, over 20 years later, I watched that historical event again and I was taken back in time to that day. I was transported back into my youth. It reminded me that at that time, HIV/AIDS was considered a death sentence. To be honest, we all thought he was going to die. It was like a funeral for our hero. He was not dead yet, but how were we going to see our hero wither away into nothing and die some horrible death. “Even though he’s walking there and standing in front of everyone giving this press conference,” says former NBA star Karl Malone in the film, “they think their seeing this dead man walking.”
The film does an amazing job looking back at the events leading up to the announcement, the announcement itself, and things that happened in Magic’s life after the announcement. Included is the perspectives of some of the players and coaches closest to Magic, including Larry Bird, James Worthy, Karl Malone, Jerry West, Pat Riley, and Michael Jordan.
In the documentary, filmmaker Nelson George chronicles the impact of Johnson’s announcement and includes, for the first time Johnson himself talking about how he learned about his illness, how he told his family and teammates and what happened after he did.
In the film, Johnson recalls that “I wasn’t scared to announce it; I wasn’t scared of the media. What I was scared of is…would I see friends and teammates again?”
I do not want to go into too many details from the documentary because this is something that you really need to see for yourself, but there is one moment I do want to share with you. In the film, they are doing a TV show with Magic and about 20 elementary school kids about HIV awareness. 2 little girls in the group are HIV positive and one little girl breaks down and is crying because she does not want to be treated differently than everyone else. She just wants to be accepted by her friends. Magic is consoling her and telling her that everything will be OK and that it is OK to cry. Magic was strong for her on the outside, but you could truly understand that he was feeling those exact same things on the inside. I challenge anyone to try watching that part of the film and not cry.
At the time, we all thought it was just a matter of time before Magic would be gone, but then something amazing happened. He didn’t die. He didn’t wither away. He was able to live a normal life. Now over 20 years later, Magic is not only still alive, he is doing well and showing no ill-effects from his illness.
Magic could have chosen to not go public with his disease. He could have said that due to his age, he was going to retire. He could have kept it a private matter, but he didn’t. He chose to face the challenge head on and go public with it. He used his position and popularity to show the world that this was not just a disease that homosexuals get. It is a disease that anyone can get.
Johnson was the first person with this virus that everyone knew. Before his announcement, many people didn’t know anyone with HIV, but after the announcement, everyone did. For the second time in Magic’s life, he was changing the game again. This time his stage was bigger than the basketball court though.
Jorge Parada, the director of infectious disease and prevention at Loyola University Health System said, “This 20-year anniversary is absolutely a milestone. At the time, this was an absolutely unique event.”
What this film does is to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS problem that still exists today. A March 8th study shows that HIV rates for urban black women are five times higher than estimated. The study looked at six urban areas considered HIV hotspots: Baltimore; Atlanta; Washington; New York; Raleigh-Durham, NC; and Newark, NJ. Overall in the US, 66% of the women diagnosed with HIV are black which is nearly 15 time the figure for white women.
“This film couldn’t come at a more opportune time,” says Amy Nunn, a medical sociologist at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University. Amy studies race and HIV in American cities. “HIV testing is the most important tool we have to fight this…Magic Johnson, by being so well-liked and respected, is helping to provide a model to youth who think it’s uncool to be tested.”
In a statement, Connor Schell, the vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films, explained the motivation for the film by saying “I stress in every story to find moments that are truly cultural turning points and drill down into them and say, ‘Here is where things changed.'”
Medical treatment has since made advances in managing the HIV virus. Magic remains healthy and active today as a businessman and TV sports commentator. Even though the disease still has some social judgement associated with it, the disease has spread way beyond the gay community. Through the personality of Magic and his life he has lived, he is changing people’s ideas about HIV and what it means. This film documents that and brings it to a wider audience and reminds us what Magic has done. For that fact, this movie is just what was needed.
Through all of this something has happened that has never really happened to me before. I have a hero again for a second time, but for two completely different reasons. When I was a kid, I thought of Magic as a hero because of the amazing things he did on the basketball court. Today as an adult, Magic is my hero because of the bravery that he showed to help educate the world about HIV and to send a message of hope that you can sometime overcome even when the odds are not in your favor. This story is not over yet. Johnson is doing good today, but no one knows what the future will bring for Magic. None of us know what the future brings for any of us. What I do know is, that whatever trials come my way in my life, I will think about my hero Magic and face them just like he faced his trials, with a big smile on my face.