Twenty years ago this week, the world heard an announcement that we all thought was the end of the world for a young man who had changed the world through his gift of playing basketball. Earvin “Magic” Johnson had entertained us for the previous 12 years by putting a fledgling league on his shoulders, and “Showtime” in the hearts of basketball fans everywhere…even in Boston.
Magic turned Los Angeles from a “bridesmaid,” always watching someone else put a ring on it, to the dominant bride of the NBA, going to the NBA finals nine times in 12 years and winning five championships. All was well with the world…and then it happened. November 7th, 1991 changed Magic’s life, our lives and changed the way we would forever perceive our own mortalities, as it related to the deadly AIDS disease.
Magic Johnson retired from basketball that day (the first time), announcing that he had contracted the dreaded HIV virus that led to contracting the full-blown AIDS disease, for which there was no cure at the time. There was one medicine available that only extended life for not more than a few years. In fact, the medicine killed you just a fast as the disease did. No one, let me repeat…NO ONE had lived with the disease beyond 10 years prior to the 1990s. The disease stuck fast and decisively. When Earvin Johnson stood before the world 20 years ago and said, “I’m going to beat it,” you perceived it more as denial than as determination. AIDS was that scary and it was a foregone conclusion that one was going to die a fast and debilitating death soon after contraction.
There can be no underestimation to the damage HIV/AIDS has caused in our community and our nation over the past two decades. This is not a love story, by any sorts. AIDS has killed tens of thousands of people. Millions have been infected with the virus, many of whom do not know they have been infected because they refuse to be tested. African American and Latino women are the fastest growing infected segment of the American population. Some consider the AIDS crisis now a national epidemic, but there hasn’t been the type of emphasis placed on the AIDS crisis that is placed on most epidemics. The HIV/AIDS crisis has had few spokespersons to raise the profile of the issue for as long as Magic Johnson, largely because most high profile celebrities affected by the virus haven’t survived it like Magic Johnson has.
We fast forward to 2011 and we see that Earvin Magic Johnson has not only survived it, he is as healthy looking as anyone in our society today. It is not sufficient to only say that Magic Johnson beat the odds. Magic Johnson changed the AIDS game the way he changed a basketball game, with the deft brilliance that only leaves you shaking your head. Magic put a spotlight on an issue that was in the shadows of our society, eating at the fringes but well on its way to the middle core of mainstream society.
With no cure and no education, America surely would have ended up like other countries, namely South Africa, that chose to ignore the disease rather than deal with it. Magic took it from the whispers of the hallways to the White House. Magic changed the way America looked at the disease, from being “just a gay disease” to one anybody could be exposed to, as the nation looked on in bewilderment that if it could touch Magic, it could touch anybody.
But the two biggest things Magic did were, first, to show us that you didn’t have to lie down and die with the AIDS virus, that you could live a normal, active and productive life, living with HIV. Second, he put his huge spotlight on the search for a cure. There are now 30 different medicines available to treat patients with the HIV virus, and all prolong life…not terminate life as the early-day treatments did. Magic kept the HIV/AIDS discussion in the public and medical discourse. He was a “game-changer” in terms of how America would begin to discuss the issue and resolve to address the issue.
Along the way, Johnson has stayed in the public eye, developing an urban entrepreneur empire that is second to none, employing thousands of inner city youth, while convincing investors and corporate America that investing in the inner city is no more a death sentence than living with HIV. Few have followed his lead on inner city investment, but many have followed his lead in living two decades with HIV.
It is still an issue than disproportionately affects the African American community. For the last 20 years, The Magic Johnson Foundation has been a leader in the fight to take the fear out of knowing one’s HIV status and in encouraging the black community to keep up the fight to bring HIV under control. Earvin Johnson has done nothing less, and given nothing less than he did on the basketball court.