The Magic of Magic Johnson

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Magic Johnson lives with HIV

Today is the 20th anniversary of the shocking afternoon press conference, on live national TV from the Forum in Inglewood, when Magic Johnson announced that he had been infected with the AIDS virus and would be retiring from the Lakers, effective immediately.

Johnson later returned to play in the NBA again, for about a half season. It's his life since that has been remarkable and that has changed the way the world looks at HIV, and what the world thinks of Johnson.

When he came to the Lakers as the first overall selection in the NBA draft, Johnson was an exciting new sports star. His play led the Lakers to championships, and his engaging personality helped make the NBA even more popular.

As a person, he was still maturing. In his press conference on November 7, 1991, Johnson mangled his words a little and said that he had "attained" the AIDS virus. Since then, his public profile has grown significantly. He has built a business empire, including the Magic Johnson Theaters and more than 100 urban Starbucks outlets. He has become a serious player in the Los Angeles business community, and a sought-after endorser of political candidates: he attended the big fundraiser for President Obama a couple of weeks ago in the Hancock Park neighborhood.

Johnson, perhaps most importantly, has also become living proof that carrying HIV is a manageable condition. He has served as an influential educator about AIDS and the virus, and friend of the effort to stop the spread of HIV. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation will mark the anniversary by hosting free HIV testing today at Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area, 905 East El Segundo Boulevard in South Los Angeles, from 10am to 6pm.

The anniversary has also sparked some emotional remembering by people who thought, 20 years ago, that Johnson might soon die of the disease.

From Bill Plaschke, L.A. Times:

Where were you? It was 3 p.m. on the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1991, and if you lived in Los Angeles, you know where you were.

It was our Kennedy assassination moment, our Challenger space shuttle moment, a moment when the Southland lost its sports innocence.

Where were you? I was home on vacation after spending the summer covering the Dodgers for this newspaper. I was watching television while my two young children played in the background. Soon they were crying because their father was crying, and at the time I didn't even know Magic Johnson.

The greatest Laker ever announced he was retiring at age 32 because he had contracted one of the most awful diseases imaginable.

Harvey Araton, New York Times:

So where were you on the night of Nov. 7, 1991? I was in Madison Square Garden, watching Pat Riley bring his Knicks and the visiting Orlando Magic together to say a pregame prayer for Magic Johnson on the day Johnson revealed that he had tested positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

That was 20 years ago Monday, and if your first thought is, 'Oh, my, how time flies,' consider the alternative likelihood that Johnson has relished every single day since he looked into television cameras broadcasting live around the world and said, "Because of the H.I.V. virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today."

Yes, the verb was mangled, but that was part of Johnson's charm, his standing — then and now — as the most positive force of energy to ever hit professional basketball. He was 32 and tried to be upbeat that day, flashing the trademark smile that Johnson's friends and colleagues feared they wouldn't see for long.

"All of us thought it was a death sentence," Riley said.

On Monday night, ESPN Classic devotes its prime-time schedule to Johnson with a documentary film, followed by an old interview with Roy Firestone and a Homecoming with Rick Reilly taped last year at Michigan State, where Johnson starred.