November 7th,1991 was one of the most seminal days in sports history, perhaps even American history. It was the day that Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson announced on national television that he was HIV positive. The revelation sent shock waves throughout the country and more particularly throughout me. I cried that day- I was nine years old. I remember thinking that my childhood idol, Magic Johnson, was going to die. The subject was the topic of the latest installment of the ESPN documentary series 30 for 30 “The Announcement”
Earvin Johnson at the podium November 7, 1991
“If I’m going to tell you this story the best place to tell it from is the forum, even though the Lakers don’t play there anymore they still let an old cat like me come by. So we can go back, take a look around and try to remember what it was like there.” says Earvin through a voiceover at the beginning of the documentary “Sometimes it feels like a life time ago and sometimes it feels like last night. Do you remember? I know I do”
The ESPN documentary places us in a time that felt so long ago. There is a shot, at the beginning of the film, of Earvin physically locking his car doors instead of using an alarm. It almost felt archaic, like a scene out of a history book. The 90’s were a time before the world was transformed by social media and the internet; a time before we were educated about the AIDS/HIV virus. Back then the only things we ‘knew’ about AIDS/HIV was that it was a ‘death sentence’ and a ‘homosexual disease’. Magic helped break those stereotypes.
I remember watching the press conference and crying. I knew very little about the HIV virus, all I knew was that my favorite player and basketball idol was going to die. I still remember the first basketball game I ever watched. Game one of the Lakers/Bulls NBA finals, June 2nd 1991. My parents took my brother and me to watch the game at Shakey’s. I had no idea who Magic Johnson was.
The NBA, at the time, was on the cusp of the Michael Jordan era. The fans and the media were ready to hand the dynamic Jordan the keys to the league, but for some reason I was drawn to the Lakers charismatic point guard with the electric smile. I remember back at school, after the Lakers lost that series to Chicago, all my friends were Jordan fans- but not me, I was a Magic Johnson fan.
Early in the film Earvin relays the story of having to tell his wife that he was HIV positive. “I played against the best in basketball, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird. Shoot I thought that was probably going to be the most difficult thing I [ever] had to do. Those things were nothing. The most difficult thing in my life was driving from the doctor’s office to tell my wife Cookie I had HIV”
Magic tells how he took his wife to have an HIV test. Cookie was pregnant at the time and both were concerned about their unborn child contracting the virus
“Of course the first reaction was ‘oh my god’. First it was him, then ‘oh my god’ me, then ‘oh my god’ the baby.” Cookie states during an interview in the film.
Earvin and his wife waited 10 days for the results. The blood samples were sent to Dr. David Ho, one of the top AIDS researchers in the country. Magic did not play in any basketball games while he and his wife waited for the results. The Lakers released a statement saying that he had the flu. After what must have been the 10 longest days the Johnson family had ever experienced, they received the news that Cookie had not contracted the virus.
“I don’t know what I would have [done] if she would have had HIV. This was my problem, my fault and I wanted only me to deal with it. I didn’t want my foolish attitude and the way I conducted myself to have to affect Cookie” Earvin stated during an interview in the film.
Even now, twenty years later, remembering the day Earvin told the world he was HIV positive, is still emotional and gut wrenching. There is a moment in the film where former Lakers coach Pat Riley almost breaks down and cries while talking about the day he found out about Earvin’s disease.
“You can’t react. It’s hard for you to really react to that” stated Riley “I just hung up the phone and I just leaned back, and I said: what did I just hear?”
During the closing moments of the ESPN documentary, Earvin makes a statement while at the podium during his HIV announcement: “I’m going to go on, I’m going to beat it and I’m going to have fun” I am not sure that many people believed those words at the time. But Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson did go on. He did beat it, and from the looks of it, had a lot of fun a long the way.
The Announcement is currently airing on ESPN and its Affiliates