Talk to anybody of a certain age and he can tell you exactly where he was when he heard the news that Magic Johnson was HIV-positive. The oral history that follows is the result of interviews with various former Lakers players, coaches, and management, as well as reporters and others who were closest to the events at the time—and with Magic himself, who, fifteen years after his “death sentence,” is still healthy, still flashing the famous smile, and still treating the responsibility that comes with being HIV-positive as “a badge of honor.”
Steve Springer (reporter, Los Angeles Times): Before voice mail, they had those little paper message memos at the hotel when you checked in on the road. You’d have the little slot behind the front desk for your room key. Magic’s slot would be bulging with messages. Sometimes there must have been a hundred memos. “Linda,” with a phone number. “Darlene,” with a phone number. Magic would hand them out to other players: “Here, you take ten. Here, you take ten.”
Cathleen Karp (former producer, KTLA): We were all in situations where we were on the road and an athlete would go by with someone who wasn’t his wife. But Magic was still single. [Johnson married his college girlfriend, Cookie, in September 1991.] Think about the time period here. It was a different world. There wasn’t anything, if he wanted it, he couldn’t have. And he was living in L.A., for God’s sake. Whatever he wanted to do, he could do it.
Jack Haley (teammate, Los Angeles Lakers): When we entered the preseason, Magic was larger than life. He was in a great mood; everything was going well. We were on a plane to Utah, playing cards, all having a great time. Then we go to the game, and there’s no Magic. As the days went by, we all assumed it was a contract holdout or he was trying to force a trade. No one knew. [James] Worthy, [Byron] Scott, A. C. [Green]—no one had a clue.
Lon Rosen (Johnson’s agent): Two weeks before the press conference, I was called and told he failed a life-insurance test. I thought maybe he had a heart ailment, like Hank Gathers. The Lakers called and said something’s weird. Earvin didn’t know. It didn’t enter his mind. When he went into [Lakers physician] Mickey Mellman’s office, he didn’t know what was going on. By now I thought he had either cancer, heart trouble, or HIV.
Mike Dunleavy (then head coach, Los Angeles Lakers): We get to Utah for the exhibition game, and I get a call from [assistant general manager] Mitch Kupchak: “Hey, Earvin has to come back to Los Angeles to go to the doctor.” I said, “If he’s got a cold or something, that’s really dumb.” Kupchak goes, “Mike, that ain’t it at all, man. Mike, I’m scared to death.” The initial things that went through my mind were cancer and AIDS. He’d had to take a life-insurance exam twice. There were red flags going up all over the place.
Rosen: I was with him in the doctor’s office when they told him. The doctor said, “You’re going to die.” I was sitting right next to him. It was the most surreal experience of my life. I didn’t know much about this disease. They gave him a death sentence: You have HIV, and you can’t play basketball anymore. You’re done. When he walked out, he said, “I guess I got a couple of years left. I guess I have to do what I have to do.” But then he said, “I don’t believe him. Forget it. I’m not going to die. I’m going to live my life.”
Magic: It was just devastation. I just slammed down. It was just&disbelief. It was like a daze. I had to really get myself together. It took a little doing.
Rosen: There was a two-day period between when he learned and when we told the world. We went to dinner. I think I was more shocked than he was.
Magic (from My Life, published in 1992): During dinner, the waiter handed me a note from the people at the next table. They were planning an AIDS fund-raiser. Would I be available to speak? It was spooky to get that note. And that’s when the whole thing started to hit me.
Dunleavy: At some point, Lon came to my house and told me. When I asked about the likelihood of how long he was going to live, nobody said more than two or three years. Before the announcement, I remember sitting with Kupchak, a very close friend of mine. He said, “This is going to be like when Kennedy was shot. People are going to remember where they were on November 7.” We had practice at Loyola Marymount, and I got a call. None of our players knew at the time. I said, “Guys, look, no showers, nothing. Get yourself down to the Forum right now. Don’t stop, don’t talk.”
A. C. Green (teammate): We thought we were just going there for practice. Then we were told we had a mandatory team meeting. Strange, but not way out of the ordinary. Then we start seeing some of the upper management come in. Okay, I’m thinking, something is going on. Then Magic came in and announced it to us for the first time. We were like, “This is a joke, right?”
Haley: It was one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever seen. Magic walked in and stood there and told us he’d contracted the AIDS virus. All these grown men were crying and upset and freaking out. Magic stands there the entire time, his voice never cracks, he has this smile on his face. He is stronger than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Magic: I felt like I had to step up and be a leader—even deciding to go public with it. My wife was struggling with that decision. In the locker room, I thought, “I must step up. They’re used to seeing me step up as a leader. No matter what the situation, I have to be Earvin. That’s who I am.” That’s how I deal with things. I’m a calm person. I embrace challenges. This was another challenge in my life.
Magic (in the Forum Club, November 7, 1991): Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today. I do not have the AIDS disease. I plan on going on living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have, so you’ll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league for a while and going on with my life. I guess I now get to enjoy some of the other sides of living that I’ve missed. I will now become a spokesman for HIV. I want people to realize that they can practice safe sex. Sometimes you’re a little naive about it and you think it could never happen to you. It has happened. But I’m going to deal with it. Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, or it’s not going to happen to me. Here I am, saying it can happen to everybody. Even me, Magic Johnson.
Jerry Buss (Lakers owner): My feeling when he announced it was that he was saying, “I’m about to die,” and that was so unacceptable and heavy to me. As I walked out of the press conference, I remember my knees going weak. I started to fall down. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar grabbed me. Otherwise, I would have collapsed. He put his arms under mine and took me into the press box and got me to sit down.
Jerry West (then Lakers general manager): It was one of the most devastating days of my life, and not because he was leaving as a basketball player. Let me tell you something: People who are truly great, they’re not going to weep. They face adversity a lot different than other people. That was a difficult day for him. It was a day he could have lived without, in terms of having to go up there and be subjected to questions about his lifestyle. You hear all kinds of things said about him—that’s what bothered me most.
Mike Downey (former Los Angeles Times reporter): ESPN’s Shelley Smith was with Sports Illustrated at the time. She said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like driving home yet.” We crossed the street to a hotel by the Hollywood Park racetrack, sat in the bar, and ordered a stiff drink. We sat there for more than an hour, trying to come to grips with it. That’s the kind of effect Magic Johnson had on some of us. And believe me, the number of athletes who have affected me this way I could count on one finger.
Magic: The dark side was, I was more worried about Cookie and the baby. We’d been together since college and finally got married, and to have this come into our lives and then to have to wait a week for the results—man, what a weight off my shoulders that she and the baby were okay. If it had been a different outcome, that’s when I would have been wearing it on my face. I would have been a different person.
Jim Brown (former NFL running back, community activist): The most important thing was that Magic faced up. I remember the attitude he had. I admired that he faced up to it right away so there wouldn’t be any lingering b.s. He and his wife dealt with it in a very beautiful way. Anyone who is sensitive should realize Cookie was a greater hero than he was. She had to be a great lady to deal with that situation with such dignity.
Ronald Johnson (associate ecutive director, Gay Men’s Health Crisis): What was most startling was for a public figure to make the infection known. That was a shock. And there was the hope, if not the expectation, that this would increase awareness of AIDS within the African-American community. There was still an enormous amount of denial about HIV/AIDS in the black community. We did feel this might cut through that, particularly since, in the case of Magic, you had a person who was not publicly identified as a drug user or known to be gay or bisexual.
Haley: The day Magic announced it, the Lakers came to us and said, “If anyone wants an AIDS test right away, we’ll give it to you.” Only a couple of guys did it. I was one who went to have it done. The team educated us about it.
Lou Adler (record producer and holder of a courtside seat, next to Jack Nicholson, since 1973): I was in my office when I found out. The phone started to ring like a telethon. I remember being so confused. Confusion, ignorance of HIV and how Magic could get it—all those emotions. And I think that’s what went through the minds of the players who wouldn’t play against him. They got very scared and reactive in that way. No one knew what to do.
Rosen: There were people whispering he was gay. I’m telling you, he went into the gay community and gave speeches. He was offended. He’d say, “I’m trying to help gay people, straight people, and they’re whispering.” That bothered Earvin. He was trying to educate people. There was an activist, Larry Kramer, who was on a couple of shows and ripped into Earvin. I wanted to beat the shit out of him. I said to him, “This guy is very famous. He’s trying to help people.” The thing that disturbed Earvin the most was certain people who were close to him in his life whispering behind his back. He was so pissed off.
Green: A lot of people sort of did a self-evaluation. They heard what happened, as far as his sexual behavior, and they understood why he retired. A lot of guys wanted to make sure they weren’t going to be that next one. I remember a report that condom sales rose to an all-time high in the next few months.
Brown: It definitely changed the condom situation. After that, it didn’t matter who you were, or how pretty the girl was, or how much money you made—anyone who didn’t use a condom was looked upon as some kind of outlaw.
Dennis Rodman (then member of the Detroit Pistons): I don’t think it changed everyone’s perspective, sexually speaking. It didn’t change me. With or without a condom, you’re not going to change your habits. But this alarm went off: “We gotta start putting condoms in our bags and make sure we’re using them.”
In November 1991, Johnson founded the Magic Johnson Foundation, dedicated to HIV/AIDS prevention and health care in inner-city communities. That same month, President George H. W. Bush invited Johnson to serve on the National Commission on AIDS. Johnson accepted, then traveled to Washington and handed Bush a letter criticizing his commitment to fighting AIDS and asking him to step it up. Nine months later, the bipartisan commission issued a statement saying that the administration had failed to live up to its promises. On September 25, 1992, Johnson resigned, saying, “Mr. President, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a commission whose important work is so utterly ignored by your administration.”
Rosen: This was a basketball player saying to George Bush, “Go fuck yourself.” Bush put him on this commission, and he quit. Earvin said to me, “I went to two meetings and realized nothing was happening. I can use my time better.”
Adler: A lot of people would have been quiet and stayed, in order not to cause any kind of commotion as far as walking away from Bush, but he’s not that kind of guy. I think he looks for people to do the same thing, react the same way he reacts. And tell it like it is, tell it straight. When they weren’t doing that, he walked.
Buss: At the time, they were telling him, “Avoid crowds, avoid stress,” but he would fly all over the world. There was no fear in him. He thought he would beat it, and that was it.
In February 1992, after being away from the league for three months, Johnson played in the NBA All-Star Game, scoring twenty-five points and winning the MVP award.
Willis: Magic stole the show. He got the MVP, and he earned it. He played exceptionally well. Hit a huge shot at the end of the half. It wasn’t a fluke. Believe me, the other guys were playing hard—they all wanted to be the MVP, too.
Magic: I had something to prove. I had to prove I could still play at a high level with HIV. I had to do this living with HIV. I had to be Magic and prove it to people. It was a wonderful day that helped all the negativity that was out there go away.
In the summer of 1992, Johnson played with the Dream Team in the Olympics. On September 29, having shown no effects of the virus, Johnson held a press conference to announce he’d return to the Lakers.
Green: I was happily surprised he was going to come back. You knew some players were hesitant. If it went through sweat glands—all that. I wasn’t concerned about it. I wasn’t worried about being in harm’s way. It was fun. I enjoyed playing against him in practice when I had the opportunity.
Dunleavy: I thought, How can he do the things he does and be so healthy? Is it possible he doesn’t have it? Or could he just be doing this so someone will find a cure?
On October 30, Johnson received a scratch during an exhibition game.
Gary Vitti (Lakers trainer, from his description of the incident in the Los Angeles Times on December 10, 1992): I was sitting on the bench, and Sean Higgins said to me, “I just saw Magic get hit, and I think he’s cut.” So a few moments later, when play was stopped, I told [referee] Eddie Rush. He sprinted over and examined him. Magic examined himself. Neither of them saw it; that’s how small a wound it was. The first dead ball, I had him show me his arms. There was a little fingernail cut, but hey, the guy’s HIV-positive. I got a six-inch swab and swabbed the area. Then I gave him a four-by-four bandage and had him put it on. I thought about using gloves, but then I thought it was sending our players a mid message. We’re telling them it’s safe to play with him, and then when he gets a fingernail cut, I’m using gloves?
Haley: What I remember was the absolute terror on the faces of the people in the crowd. The people within the immediate area of Magic. They assumed he could infect them from twenty, thirty rows away. That’s what I remember—looking at the crowd and the hush and the terror that went through the arena. It was devastating, because I knew what basketball meant to Magic. This was the most energetic guy, the greatest people person, who embraces his fans. Now, all of a sudden, people are not shaking his hand? This had to be one of the most difficult things for him. Never in all the years have I even seen a twitch of self-pity. Never have I seen him unhappy. Except maybe just that one second in that game when the fans freaked out. Then I could see the disappointment in his eyes.
Magic: Everything was going good. But to hear the hush go over the crowd& So I said, “No. I can’t do it now. People aren’t ready yet. People are not educated yet.” I didn’t want to hurt the game I’d helped build up. So I went away. I knew I had to educate them even more. I was able to do that at first. I was pretty happy with my performance. I wanted to prove I could play with HIV against guys at a high level.
Karl Malone (then member of the Utah Jazz, before a preseason game in October 1992): They can’t tell you that you’re not at risk, and you can’t tell me there’s one guy in the NBA who hasn’t thought about it. Just because he came back doesn’t mean nothing to me. I’m no fan, no cheerleader. It may be good for basketball, but you have to look far beyond that. You have a lot of young men who have a long life ahead of them. The Dream Team was a concept everybody loved. But now we’re back to reality.
Dunleavy: What Malone said was just ignorance.
Magic: I couldn’t take that out on Malone. That’s the past for both of us. One thing about me is I never live in the past. Life’s too short for that. You shake hands. Life goes on.
Karp: They say money doesn’t buy health. I have heard about transfusions, that he had a couple of them. I have no idea.
Magic: For a long time, it was going around I was cured. I had to let people know: I’m not cured. The medicine has kept the HIV asleep in my body. Another rumor was I was on some magical drugs. No. The same twenty-six drugs are available to everyone else as to me. I take care of myself. I work out every day. I try to get my rest. The main thing is, I’m in a good frame of mind. I’m okay with living with HIV. A lot of people freak out. I’m okay with it.
West: I believe the reason he’s still bigger than life is the way he’s handled this. Athletes’ fame is always fleeting, but he is going to be recognized not only for his incredible basketball playing but for the way he handled this adversity.
Ronald Johnson: He has made a difference. It did not cut through the denial as much as we had hoped it would, but it did make a dent. There continues to be significant opposition within the African-American community about going on drugs. Too many people die needlessly and prematurely because they refuse to take the medications. But his very public sharing of the fact that he’s on medications and is doing well helps to counter that. What still needs to be done? I wouldn’t put the onus on Magic, but one of the key issues, particularly in the African-American community, is people finding out that they are positive late in the disease. If I were advising Mr. Johnson—and I don’t want to begrudge him all that he’s done—but if he could get his fellow celebrities to speak out more, that would be very, very good.
Magic: The biggest fear we have in the minority community is the fear of what others think. We’ve got a fear that if they find out in the church, people might not want you to come to church. Fear of what the neighbors will say. So we don’t really pass on information. When I first announced, there was only one drug. Now there are twenty-six. People shouldn’t be afraid to be tested. Early detection and all those combinations of drugs, it can really prolong your life. I had so much I wanted to do and accomplish, and in fifteen years I’ve been doing it. For the first five years, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was hoping the medicine was going to work, but you just don’t know. In those years, it was always, “You okay? You okay? You okay?” everywhere I went. Now I don’t get that. Now I get “You’re doing great in business.” No one checks anymore. Things are going great. I wear this as a badge of honor. I don’t run away from it. I know that God has chosen me to make a difference in the world. So far, so good. Not only with HIV but with everything else I’m doing. I feel like I’m going to be here for a long time.