On August 30, 2011, Earvin “Magic” Johnson took to Twitter to announce the birth of his second grandchild, Avery Johnson. In the early winter of 1991, if someone told you Magic would live to see the birth of his grandchildren, you would have had the same reaction as to having someone tell you that someday there would be a social media outlet where fans and athletes could interact with one another in 140 characters or less—that is, you’d have serious doubts.
The great thing about life is that it can be so incredibly unpredictable.
Ten days spanned the length of time between when Johnson found out through a routine physical that he was HIV-positive, to when he ultimately decided to come out publicly with his diagnosis, retire from basketball, and eventually become the face of a disease that had up until then, been misunderstood. Twenty years later, the impact of his decision still resonates even beyond the generation of fans that witnessed it.
In the new ESPN documentary, The Announcement, Johnson serves as narrator to the story of his glory days at the forum, how everything unfolded after that November 7th press conference, and how he continues to lead a healthy life, still infected with the AIDS virus.
When Johnson came to Los Angeles in 1979, he was a fresh-faced Michigan kid, with the kilo-watt smile, that quickly turned the entire city’s attention towards the purple and gold with his energetic offense, rejuvenating the Lakers franchise, and with his on-court rivalry with Larry Bird and the Celtics, would eventually lifting a depleted league to prominence.
As the crowds that filled The Forum grew, so did Magic’s popularity and temptation came, as bounties of women wanted to surround him. Those temptations would at times cause him and Cookie to separate off-and-on before they eventually married. Even after learning the severity of his condition, caused by his experiences living life as a young superstar, Cookie stayed by his side. This also despite the fact that he could have infected her and their unborn child with the virus, she continued to play a strong role in his battle to survive, strengthening their relationship and his will to beat the odds.
While at the time, the expectation was for Magic to succumb to the disease—he was essentially someone who everyone saw, as Karl Malone describes in the film, “a dead man walking,” Magic never saw things that way. Even though the AIDS epidemic was viewed as a death sentence, Magic just saw it as another opportunity to defeat a relentless opponent, just as he had on the court.
“I’ll deal with it,” Johnson said at the time. He would deal with it just like he had dealt with Maurice Cheeks in the NBA Finals in 1980 and ’83 against the 76ers, or against Bird and the Celtics, or Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Rodman in those matchups with the Pistons, and even Michael Jordan. When he stood before a small crowd on November 7, 1991 for the announcement, he’d tried to stay upbeat—smiling throughout the press conference just as he had so many times on the court, but it wasn’t that he had easily accepted being HIV-positive, rather an understanding of the bigger picture. It was at that point that he’d go from Magic the player to Magic the activist.
Magic had no idea how people would react to his announcement, he could only hope that he could turn a negative in his life, into a positive for others, making a difference in the way they approached protecting themselves against the AIDS virus. Within a few days, media coverage of his infection would inspire others to get tested. AIDS was no longer a disease that affected homosexuals and drug addicts, anyone could contract it.
The unlikeliest of people to put a face on the disease would become its greatest advocate to advance treatment, or even better, a cure.
Now with the releasing of the documentary, we can all relive what was a turning point in history, experience the endurance of the human spirit through Magic’s words, and bring to light a disease that still affects millions of people worldwide.
“I am not cured,” Johnson says just as the closing credits roll.
With that in mind, Nelson George, the film’s director wanted to emphasize in the telling of the story that the disease is still out there, and that despite the progress that has been made, despite the fact that we see Magic healthy, there is no cure for AIDS.
Just like we can’t seem to forget the way Magic elevated others to a championship level of play, neither should we forget the people who live day to day with the disease, and how we help contribute towards the fight against AIDS.
The Announcement will premiere Sunday night on ESPN.