20 Years Later: Magic putting on performance of his life off the court

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Our first thought was, We're going to watch him die.

We need to keep remembering that for a few reasons: to appreciate how much medical (or pharmacological) science has evolved, to appreciate how much our perception of disease can change and to appreciate how much one person can do if his will is strong.

Thousands of readers will find it hard to grasp that we heard "death sentence" when Magic gathered us around the TV on Nov. 7, 1991 and told us -- astoundingly, bomb-droppingly -- that he had "attained" the AIDS virus, as if it were another capture-the-flag moment in a gilded career. Millions are living with HIV and will never acquire full-blown AIDS, which is still a deadly disease.

But in the early '90s we were in the Dark Ages of this mysterious disease. Worse, we believed that Magic would in all likelihood wither away in the most public fashion, dribbling a mini-ball through Arsenio's legs, dunking over Jay on a 7-foot basket, always game and smiling, of course, but each time a little weaker, a little frailer, a little less ... Magic.

But it never happened. And so we recognize the 20th anniversary of what was quite simply the most riveting sports press conference in history. with no reason to suspect there won't be a 50th. Magic is 52 going on 22, a global businessman, NBA commentator, talk-show guest, ambassador without portfolio, one of those one-name supernovas that everybody knows.

But it was nothing like that on that Thursday afternoon in November of '91. About two years later, another jaw-dropping, page-one presser took place in Chicago when Michael Jordan announced his sudden retirement (the first one) from the NBA. But that gathering had an entirely different feel to it, permeated as it was by a grumbling undertone amid the press, which doubted it was getting the whole story. (Some still doubt it today.) Magic's press conference, by contrast, was dirge-like, the testimonials more like eulogies, a kind of pre-funeral.

All in all, it was a strange time with a preamble and multiple repercussions afterward. Herewith a brief history:

A few weeks before the press conference, Magic was with his Los Angeles Lakers in Paris, playing in the annual McDonald's Open. Magic, being Magic, put himself out front, the point man at press conferences, hospital visits and promotional stops. There was much to talk about, Barcelona and the upcoming Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics being one of those subjects, and he made it clear that he had appointed himself team captain, the leader among leaders.

"Ma-jeek, what will you do in Barcelona, if somebody on your team gets out of line?" a French journalist asked him during a press conference at the Open.

"I won't let any somebodies get out of line," he answered. "If any players get out of line, I'll take care of it. That's my job, and I'm going to do it."

He also saw it as his job to push his own private ventures. Whenever a microphone was around he spoke of Magic Johnson T's and how the Olympics "are going to put a whole new light on things in the business world for NBA stars. Michael and myself are really going to be able to cash in on it." Magic Johnson T's was actually an official licensee of NBA Properties, Inc., empowered to sell NBA products, which meant that Magic, unabashed capitalist that he was and is, was making money off the sale of t-shirts bearing the likeness of his Dream Team mates. Magic even admitted, with a broad smile, that Jordan T's out-sold Magic T's.

But there was something dark about the visit to the City of Lights. It wasn't the grand time it was supposed to be. The weather was drizzly and the Lakers were grumpy, and I remember saying to someone, "Nobody seemed to be having a great time. Including Magic."

Maybe he knew something. For when he got back to L.A., his doctor informed him that he had the AIDS virus, the shocking revelation from a physical Magic had taken weeks earlier. It was confirmed by a re-test. His doctors decided that he should retire from the game to work on fighting the disease.

The culture in general, never mind the athletic culture, was still largely unfamiliar with HIV and AIDS at that time, which was considered a "gay disease." So when it chose to alight in the sports world, it selected one of the most celebrated and beloved figures. The odds on that couldn't even be calculated. That's why the news on that day was so mind-blowing. It was only later, after we learned a lot more about the disease, and a lot more about Magic's careless sexual behavior, that it made some sense.

The impact from Magic's riveting press conference was something like that of an earthquake -- widespread and devastating with frequent after-shocks. That's the only way I can describe it. The Spanish daily, El Pais, devoted two pages to "The Magic Man: A Living Legend and a Myth in World Sport," and rued the apparent fact that he would not be playing in the Olympics. All six major television networks in Japan, where basketball was not even a major sport, carried the news. Papers in Sydney, Milan, Oslo, London and Munich also splashed the story on page one, as did, needless to say, virtually every newspaper in America.

Only 24 hours after his announcement, the Los Angeles City Hall steps, where Magic had stood as an honored NBA champion five times since 1980, were renamed the Magic Johnson Plaza of Champions; that required a unanimous emergency vote of City Council. Many, like scholastic coaching legend Morgan Wootten of Dematha High School in Maryland, compared Magic's revelation to the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. UCLA's John Wooden, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of sports, conjured up the day that Lou Gehrig announced he was dying of a disease that was later named for him.

In the weeks that followed, Magic put the virus in a full-court press. True, he made some missteps, trumpeting much too enthusiastically that he had acquired the disease through heterosexual contact, and drawing the ire of the gay community. But there was never a doubt that he would become a leader in the HIV fight.

Still, those early stories that we wrote had the tone of obituaries -- at the very least, basketball obituaries. Here's how I concluded mine:

Magic's departure also has obvious implications for the U.S. Olympic team, which is now without a point guard and a captain, jobs that had both been locked up by Johnson. Although he still holds out hope of playing, it is not considered very likely by NBA officials, who have lost perhaps their most enduring hero.

Boy, was I wrong.

So now it's three months after the press conference. Is he weak? Hospitalized? Dying? No, quite the contrary. What Magic was doing on this day was climbing into a uniform as the 13th member of the NBA's Western Conference All-Stars.

In the weeks that followed that seemingly dire November announcement, Magic had succeeded in altering the storyline. Yes, he had retired from the NBA, but he had continued to work out at Sports Club L.A., playing full-court hoops and steadily upping his aerobic activity. He gave up red meat and fried foods and loaded up on unsweetened juices (carrot was a favorite), fruits, vegetables and grilled and broiled chicken and fish. He found an L.A. bakery that specialized in muffins made with honey instead of butter and another place where he bought sugar-free pies. Other HIV victims might've gone into seclusion, but Magic filled our lives with the details of his.

So, while a subtle backlash had begun against Magic and all the positive attention he was getting, there was almost nothing anyone could do about his participation in the All-Star Game. Magic had been given clearance to play by his doctors and special dispensation from NBA commissioner David Stern. Magic said he wanted to play, no one could exactly find any reason that he couldn't or shouldn't play ... so Magic was playing.

Not everyone was happy about it, particularly since Orlando had clearly become a trial balloon for his Olympic participation, not to mention his full-time return to the NBA. An official from the Australian Olympic Federation recommended that players from his country boycott games against the U.S. if Magic was on the team. The senior medical director of that federation's basketball program said that Johnson presented a "realistic threat" of passing on the AIDS virus. At least one Australian player, center Ray Borner, said that he would accept a silver medal rather than play against Johnson for the gold.

The resistance wasn't only international. Cleveland Cavaliers guard Mark Price, an Eastern Conference All-Star who would be playing against Johnson, said: "I think it's in the back of every player's mind. We still don't know much about the virus." Houston Rockets coach Don Chaney said that Magic shouldn't play. "If there's a risk at all," said Chaney, "I don't feel that risk should be taken."

Like many reporters, I did the due diligence, trying to find the truth about a disease that still perplexes us two decades later. Had the Internet been in existence then, one can only imagine the multitude of daily reports that would've seen the light of day -- Magic's T-cell count would've been as widely reported as the weather.

In the end, of course, Magic, being Magic, shut his ears to what he called "all the negativity." Before the game, he got a two-minute standing ovation from the crowd, hugs from teammates and opponents. It was Isiah Thomas who motioned that everyone should come forward, and that included a game Mark Price. Perhaps some of the players felt more at ease since they had been tested for AIDS and had come up negative. Of the 25 All-Stars present on that afternoon, only Houston's Otis Thorpe and Detroit's Dennis Rodman said they had not been tested, while only Isiah and James Worthy would not comment.

Naturally, Magic put on a legendary performance, scoring 25 points to go with nine assists, five rebounds and two steals to win the MVP award in a 153-113 Western Conference rout. The afternoon included a long three-pointer with time running out, and here's what I wrote the following week in SI:

There he stood, 24 feet from the basket, a ball in one hand, a sprinkle of magic dust in the other. As the game clock wound down, Magic Johnson wound up and let fly. "I figured the shot was in," said the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson, his Western Conference teammate. "He's been writing this script for years."

Of course it went in, a three-pointer no less. And thus ended, in impossibly emotional and dramatic fashion, Sunday's 42nd NBA All-Star Game, better known as The Earvin Johnson Consciousness-Raising Love-In. Bank on this: You'll never see anything like it again.

That was laying it on a bit thick. But it was a moment for thickness.

Nine months earlier, most of us believed he was going to get sick and die. But as I covered the Dream Team at the Olympics, it was hard to fathom what had transpired since Magic's announcement. I have searched my memory bank -- and have interviewed the Dream Team members, coaches, executives, hangers-on, etc. for a book I'm doing commemorating the 20-year anniversary of that team -- and can't remember his HIV or the subject of AIDS ever being an issue. Never. It just didn't come up. It was like it was forgotten and Magic was like every other player. Which is how it should be.

But not, alas, how it remained.

Once back in the States, Karl Malone, one of Magic's Dream Team mates, suddenly went all rogue on the HIV issue, telling Harvey Araton of the New York Times that he was hesitant to play against Magic, who was attempting a comeback to the NBA.

Then, around the time that Malone made his comment, the Lakers were in Jordan Country playing an exhibition game during which Johnson suffered a small cut on his right forearm. Under new medical guidelines that had been set up specifically to allay fears about Magic, he was forced to come out of the game for medical attention, "the Magic rule" as it had been inevitably christened. Gary Vitti, the veteran Lakers trainer, reached for a cotton swab and appeared to be reaching for the rubber gloves in his pocket. But then Vitti decided against it and tended to Magic barehanded, applying a cotton swab and bandage.

There was a stunned silence when fans realized that Magic was the one who was about to get treatment. And then there was a collective gasp as everyone stared at the tableau before them: A man touching the bloody arm of someone with the AIDS virus. The story and the photo made national headlines the next morning and continued to have legs for weeks afterward.

Magic re-entered the game, but he wasn't the same, his joy devoured by that silence, that gasp, the attendant attention given to a small cut and the comments of Malone, his brother in gold two months earlier.

Shortly thereafter, he convened a press conference to announce his second retirement. Magic didn't even show up, which revealed the depths of his sadness about the whole thing. He walked away from the game he loved and the game he saved, an outcast angel.

"I guess I was the blessing," Magic said, "and then I was the curse."

We were sitting in the lobby of a hotel during the 2011 NBA Finals, which Magic was working as analyst for ABC. The subject was HIV.

"The blessing was that I came out and announced and everybody started talking about AIDS openly, maybe for the first time," Magic said. "Then the curse came because kids started saying, 'Oh, I can get it and still be like Magic. He's all over the place. He's doing fine.'"

Magic felt obligated, as he should, to set the medical record straight.

"You can't look at the example of one person and say, 'I'll be like that,'" he said. "The virus acts differently in everybody. Hopefully the meds work and there's early detection. But you can't be sure. Early detection is the key because full-blown AIDS is still a death sentence. It's important that people get checked."

Over the years, as Magic remained in the spotlight, broadcasting and expanding his business empire, his weight went up and down with the regularity of Oprah's. He looked big, then he looked normal, then he looked real big, then he looked OK. At this writing, he looks great, having shed 25 pounds. "The road used to kill me," he says, "because I snacked a lot. And sweets are a weakness. That will never change. But I've cut back. Protein shake in the morning, maybe oatmeal."

Whenever possible, he arises at 4:30 a.m. to stretch. Then he goes to the gym and runs outside or on the treadmill. The regimen he learned as an athlete helps him with the regimen he needs as someone living with HIV.

"Thank God my knees and hips are OK," he says.

I ask Magic if, in those early moments, he ever thought about dying.

"No," he answers immediately. But then he reconsiders.

"All right, there was one time, about a month after I learned that I had HIV, that I had to deal with death. I took a long walk on the beach with Lon [Rosen, his agent at the time], and we had to talk about getting all these things in order in case something happened.

"But other than that? Never. And I have to believe that, along with medicine and diet, my mindset is what really kept me alive. From the first moment I got it, I really believed I was going to beat it."