"Listen, I can't tell you what's going on. Just be there. This is gonna change all of our lives."
These were the words of Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti as he instructed members of the 1992 Lakers to attend a mandatory meeting at the Forum on November 7, 1991. Among a select few sworn to secrecy, Vitti couldn't reveal the reason: Magic Johnson needed to tell his teammates about testing HIV-positive. Shortly after, Johnson would tell the world.Mike Powell/Getty Images
Vitti and Johnson go back a long time in their working and professional relationship.
The day did change lives, and well beyond those in the Laker family.
With Monday marking the 20th anniversary of Magic's unforgettable press conference, I met with Vitti at the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo for his thoughts on the day and its significance. The two have been close friends since 1984 and despite having talked about this period countless times, Vitti still gets choked up reliving it. The details and emotions shared make this podKast truly worth a listen.
You can hear the entire show here, and below is a breakdown of talking points:
(:08) - Vitti's and Johnson's relationship was initially distant, then a bit contentious after the trainer felt the point guard gave him a "snotty answer" to a question. Johnson quickly explained via a smile and a bear he was only kidding around. "That was the moment we bonded," explained Vitti of a friendship now grown exceptionally strong.
(3:13) - Vitti actually figured out Magic contracted the HIV virus before being formally told. The Lakers were in Utah for an exhibition game against the Jazz, and Magic, who'd been experiencing fatigue, was told he urgently needed to return to L.A., no questions asked. Everybody was in the dark and the mystery ate at Vitti. "I just couldn't let it go," says the trainer of the undisclosed issue. "All of a sudden Magic has to go home. It can't be good, right?"
After wracking his brain for days, he suddenly remembered during a game against the Jazz that Magic had taken a physical for a life insurance policy. The light bulb went off, and keeping it together while on the job was a nightmare task.
"That game, Tony Smith, was a second year guard," recalls Vitti. He was having a great training camp and he severely sprained his ankle. Third degree ankle sprain. And he's laying on the table in the training room at the Delta Center and he's very, very upset. He's in tears. And I grab him by the shirt and I say, 'What are you crying about? Because the injury hurts? Or are you crying because you're depressed?' And he just sort of shakes his head. And I said, 'Well, you're gonna get better. You're gonna get better. Some people aren't.'
"No idea what I'm talking about. He looks at me like I've got three heads."
In many ways, however, knowing was just as bad as not knowing. Vitti could tell nobody -- even his wife -- which meant lying to the faces of people like then-head coach Mike Dunleavy about Magic having the flu. Thus, he often had to carry this emotional weight alone.
"We thought it was a death sentence," admits Vitti. "At some point, I'm gonna lose one of my close friends. And not just lose him, but he's gonna whither away in a horrible death."
-(10:15) Thankfully, Magic was around to talk Vitti off the ledge. Crazy as it sounds, that's essentially what happened when the two finally discussed Johnson's diagnosis. Vitti was "a wreck" and Magic remained positive, promising his friend he'd be just fine.
"I don't want you to worry about me," Johnson told Vitti. "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person. I'm gonna do something really good with this. I'm gonna beat this."
Vitti collected himself enough to pledge unwavering support.
"I said, 'I'm with you all the way. To the end. Whatever it takes. If I have to leave the Lakers or whatever you need me for, I'm your guy.' "
(13:23) - Vitti discusses the emotional meeting among players before the press conference. Again, another highly emotional situation where Johnson ironically served as the glue for everyone else.Mike Powell/Getty Images
Magic's announcement was a day nobody will ever forget.
(21:55) - It wasn't easy to hear people like Karl Malone reluctant to play against Magic, but Vitti recognized the issue. Hurtful as the sentiments came across, they were born of ignorance to the disease -- it's important to remember this still was the early 90's -- not malice. Even Magic's teammates privately worried about playing with him, and they absolutely loved the man.
Thus, the trainer "took it upon myself to correct the ignorance" and worked hard to inform players whenever about the facts. From a medical perspective, they actually were more concerned about the risks to Magic as an athlete with a compromised immune system than any issues facing his opponents.
(25:16) - Vitti recounts a moment now iconic, despite his best efforts to keep history grounded. Everyone "remembers" the 1992 exhibition game where he treated a cut on Magic's arm without wearing rubber gloves. However, as Vitti has pointed out countless times, they're remembering the incident wrong. It was actually a "fingernail scratch," not a "giant, open, bleeding wound." In fact, there was no blood. He wanted to cover the scratch (primarily for Magic's safety), and in that moment, recognized every player was watching his approach. Thus, he decided against gloves.
"I felt if we did, it really would have sent a mixed message to the rest of the players on the team and the league," explains Vitti.
The procedure itself was simple, but the reaction was anything but. To begin, the fearfulness from everyone around him overwhelmed Magic. The notion of constantly experiencing similar moments was unappealing, so a comeback attempt was quickly thwarted.AP Photo/Brad Isbell
Magic's announcement was a day nobody will ever forget.
"Earvin had an issue because he saw the way everybody looked at him and the horror in their faces. And once again, looking out for them, he didn't want to be that burden, and he retired again... He didn't want to be 'Earvin Johnson, the HIV positive basketball player.' He wanted to be 'Earvin Magic Johnson the basketball player.' "
The Charlotte incident grew larger than life, and Vitti was thrust into spotlight. His actions were meant purely as a statement to NBA athletes, but were interpreted as essentially political. The league wasn't thrilled by what, at the time, was seen as too casual an approach. An anonymous formal complaint to OSHA from a Rhode Island doctor led to an NBA investigation of Vitti. (No wrongdoing was discovered.) He even received hate mail.
In 2011, this moment is now viewed as a positive, brave stance by Vitti. However, memories tainted by controversy still clearly sting. But with 19 years to reflect, there's not an ounce of regret.
"I'd be lying to you if I told you that I would have felt better if I handled it differently," insists Vitti. "Maybe other people would have. And maybe I should have. But I did what I had to do. And I stand by it."
(36:22) - "It's not like we didn't have conversations," says Vitti of Johnson's promiscuous lifestyle. At the time, the concerns were centered around different sexually transmitted diseases, Hepatitis and, later, Magic's wife than specifically HIV. Still, Vitti laid some of the blame on his shoulders for not delivering a strong enough message, and carried that weigh for a while.
"In a word, it's called guilt," he laments.
(37:45) - Vitti speculates how an HIV positive player would be received in 2011, along with the viability of playing with the virus. Very interesting, thoughtful stuff.