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Magic and HIV: "We thought it was a death sentence"

A team's athletic trainer, by virtue of his function, is at the very center of the lives of players. These are athletes whose job performances are predicated on good health -- and they look to a team's trainer as their primary guide on their physical well-being. When they feel sick or achy, tweak their back, are having trouble sleeping, or want advice on their diets, that's whom they consult.

Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti has been with the organization longer than virtually anyone -- since the 1984-85 NBA season. At the beginning of his eighth season with the team, Vitti remembers getting a phone call from Magic Johnson. The Lakers' point guard felt exhausted and wanted to take the last two games of the preseason off.

What developed over the next few days rocked not only the NBA, but reverberated internationally.

Nearly 20 years later, Vitti recounts to Mike Trudell the events surrounding Magic Johnson's announcement that he had contracted HIV:

MT: When we today see Magic so full of life, so vibrant, do we perhaps forget – at least to a degree – what the letters “HIV” meant in 1991?

Vitti: We thought it was a death sentence, just a matter of time. He was going to die.

MT: Do you think Magic ever believed that?

Vitti: No. He told me that he was going to beat it. But when he said it to you at the time, you’re like, ‘Good attitude, man.’ You didn’t really think he was going to beat it.

When we want to mark time, technology is what we most often use as a benchmark. As revolutionary as tools like the web and semiconductors might be, few things have changed more radically during the past 20 years than the way we publicly discuss HIV.