In just a few months, it will have been 20 years since Magic Johnson made the shocking announcement that he had contracted the HIV virus at the age of 32 and was immediately retiring. Anyone following the NBA back then remembers where they were when they heard the news (I was playing goalie during a fierce street hockey game in my Southern California neighborhood).
With the anniversary around the corner, Johnson continues to live his life to the fullest. At a recent appearance at Loyola Marymount University, Johnson acknowledged he regretted his sudden retirement when he went public.
“If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have retired,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t know that then. And you’ve just got to go with what happened.”
There was much confusion over the virus in those days (Freddie Mercury died of AIDS months after Magic’s announcement, only a day after issuing a press release confirming he had the virus) and an intense controversy followed among his fellow NBA players as to whether they would be okay with sharing the court with Magic if he made a comeback.
“The players the first time, they were so scared. They thought they were going to get HIV by playing against me. So I was really upset at that.”
Regardless, the fans voted him into the 1992 All-Star game and he was a member of the Dream Team that won gold in the Barcelona Olympics. He intended to return the next season but the controversy over his health scuttled those plans.
“What was so crazy about (that was) I had just played with these guys in the Olympics,” he said. “The same guys! It was crazy. We played, we scrimmaged every day against each other. So we’re body-to-body, all of that. We’re checking each other hard. Then I get back home and I said, ‘I’m coming back to the NBA’. And the same guys that I went to war with in the Olympics came out and said, “No, I think I’m going to get HIV.’
“Wait a minute. Weren’t we playing against each other for two months? And then did anybody in the Olympics get HIV from playing against me?
“I knew what it was when a couple of guys came out. They just didn’t want the Lakers to be strong again,” Johnson quipped. “I decided to retire because I didn’t want to hurt the game.”
Soon, Johnson realized his fellow players were uneducated about the HIV virus and set out to work with the NBA to get the facts straight. His desire to play again and retire on his terms led to his final comeback during the 1995-96 season, playing power forward for the final 32 games of the season. I was lucky enough to see his last game at the old Miami Arena and I can still recall that he was the best player on the floor that night.
Magic, who will turn 52 on August 14th and continues to look quite healthy, has actually outlived more than a few of the players he battled against in his prime. With his business ventures, activism and TV work (try to forget his ill-fated talk show) Johnson has proved that the virus he contracted all those years ago hasn’t slowed him down in the slightest.