It will soon be 20 years – Nov. 7, 1991 – since Magic Johnson went before a packed news conference at the Forum in Inglewood, California, to reveal that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from basketball. For the world of sports, it was a devastating announcement. Conventional wisdom at the time was that, at the age of 32, one of basketball’s most dazzling players had been given an agonizing death sentence. It was also thought, “How could this happen? Was Magic secretly gay?”
But Magic was spared an agonizing death and he isn’t gay. Soon after his announcement, he began to benefit from the newest in AIDS drug cocktails — combinations of medications that have kept many people with the virus from developing full-blown AIDS. Magic affirmed, “The medicine has done its thing. I think I’ve done my part. And God has done His part.”
And, to celebrate a decade of cooperation, Michael Weinstein, President of AHF, hosted a fundraiser recently at his Hollywood Hills home for MJF. There was definitely “fun” in this fundraiser as arriving guests were directed to the patio to personally meet Magic Earvin Johnson and have their pictures taken with him and Michael. For the record, AHF provides cutting-edge medical care and advocacy regardless of one’s ability to pay, while MJF works to develop programs while supporting community-based organizations that address the educational, health and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities. Also attending was Oscar De La O, President of Bienestar, a Latino-driven HIV/AIDS grassroots organization.
HIV/AIDS came to the attention of health professionals in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan became President. Observers point out that AIDS research and public education were not funded adequately in the early years of what has become a worldwide epidemic. Earlier research and education could have saved lives and helped a worried populace fight HIV/AIDS. Reagan’s Presidency set the example for governmental stonewalling and inaction. In fact, it wasn’t until 1987, seven years into his Presidency, that Reagan finally said the word AIDS publicly! His silence fed the misperception that the virus was striking only gay white men.
For Johnson and for basketball, the ‘80s were Magic! In 1980, Magic helped propel the Los Angeles Lakers into the world championship finals. His playing proved essential in the playoffs. While there was always talk of his off-the-court promiscuity, it was his on-the-court actions which garnered amazement and affection.
Simultaneously, however, HIV was making its insidious and ultimately devastating path through the male homosexual community. In 1985, Rock Hudson died from HIV/AIDS, the same year that Magic was helping the Lakers win another world championship. In 1986 tight-end Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins died from HIV/AIDS complications. And in 1987, while Magic and the Lakers were winning another world championship, the $2 million, 25-bed county Chris Brownlie Hospice for AIDS patient care, the first and largest of its kind, was established by AHF. That same year Liberace died of HIV/AIDS.
In 1988, the Lakers won another world championship the same year that Max Robinson, the Chicago-based, Black co-anchor of ABC News “World News Tonight, died of AIDS. A year later, in 1989, Bienestar was established to provide HIV/AIDS services for the Latino community.
HIV-related mortality rates rose steadily peaking in 1994–1995 when, in just that one year, approximately 50,140 deaths from HIV/AIDS occurred in the U.S. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation HIV/AIDS Fact Sheet, “Blacks (men and women) have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS since the epidemic’s beginning…(and) account for more HIV and AIDS cases and HIV-related deaths than any other racial/ethnic group in the U.S…(Blacks) face greater barriers to accessing care than their white counterparts. Today, there are approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S., including more than 500,000 who are Black.”
Since 2007, AHF’s and MJF’s joint efforts include the establishment of five AHF Magic Health Clinics. The latest, dedicated in May in North Miami Beach, joins Jacksonville, Florida and Oakland, San Francisco, and South Los Angeles. In addition, AHF’s Magic Johnson “Testing America” Tour, a six month, 48 state national cross country HIV testing tour, now in its last month, offers free HIV testing in AHF’s new, state-of-the-art “Testing America” mobile testing unit.
“After six months on the road, our ‘Testing America’ tour culminates with a major event in New York City on June 27, National HIV Testing Day,” said Azul Mares-DelGrasso, AHF’s Tour Manager. Other states included in the last leg of the 6 month tour are Maine (6/9), New Hampshire (6/11), Vermont (6/15), Massachusetts (6/18), Rhode Island (6/21), Connecticut (6/23) and New York (6/25-27). Contact info: www.aidshealth.org or www.freehivtest.net
From the beginning days in 1980, the face and treatment of HIV/AIDS has changed dramatically. AHF has grown to be the largest HIV/AIDS healthcare organization in the world. It currently has programs and runs clinics in more than 20 countries, including rural Africa.
Said Magic Johnson, “”I feel wonderful. Everything is great. I celebrate life and I live every day. Every day is a holiday for me. Nov. 7 won’t be any different.”