Magic crisis showed Stern's strength

David Stern was devastated when he learned Magic Johnson had been diagnosed with the HIV virus. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

NBA commissioner David Stern refused to be rattled. He was too intellectually nimble, supremely prepared, a litigator who perfected the art of examining every angle to ward off the unknown or unexpected.

But a numbing phone call on Oct. 27, 1991 thrust him into the unfamiliar territory of shock, surprise and stunned silence.

Lon Rosen, the agent for Earvin "Magic" Johnson, reached Stern in his suburban New York home to inform him Johnson had been diagnosed with the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

"He wasn't just stunned," recalled Rosen. "He was devastated -- for Earvin."

Rosen took the commissioner step-by-step through Johnson's medical nightmare, which began with a routine blood test for insurance purposes. When those results raised concerns, further testing led to the horrific realization that Johnson was carrying the HIV virus. Although at that time HIV cases were generally associated with homosexual sex, Johnson's agent said Magic had contracted it through unprotected sex with multiple female partners.

The doctors said Earvin Johnson had three years to live.

It was a tragic story, a messy one, too, and would have major ramifications throughout Stern's league.

"David Stern understood immediately this was going to be a serious problem for the NBA, but his concern wasn't about that," Rosen said. "At that moment, he was only thinking of Earvin."

Stern reacted the way he usually did when presented with a thorny problem: he hunkered down and educated himself on the issue. For the next several days he pored over medical journals, research studies and newspaper and magazine articles.


Whatever the reason, how he got it, none of that mattered. We thought he was going to die. We closed ranks with Magic.

"-- David Stern

He contacted the foremost experts in the field, including Dr. David E. Rogers, co-chairman of the National Commission on AIDS. He reached out to Dr. David Ho, who had met with NBA team doctors two years earlier at the annual league meetings and forecast a potential threat called the HIV virus.

"We had a notion there was something coming," Stern said.

What Stern learned from his own research empowered him to take on one of the most daunting (and least publicized) challenges of his 30 years as NBA commissioner. He would back his gregarious superstar and attempt to educate the public in the process, with his reputation -- and the viability of his carefully constructed basketball empire -- on the line.

He would also do everything in his power to prevent the public from knowing about the conflict that enveloped his office.

"The attitude from the very beginning was, 'We've got to do the right thing and live with the consequences,'" said Russ Granik, former deputy commissioner under Stern. "David recognized this had broader societal implications."

Once news leaked of Johnson's diagnosis, the inevitable backlash was swift and damning. Magic, the smiling face of the NBA, was condemned for having loose morals and badgered about his sexual preference. It reflected poorly on him and the league he helped lift to dizzying heights.

"Whatever the reason, how he got it, none of that mattered," explained Stern in a phone interview with ESPN.com on Monday. "We thought he was going to die. We closed ranks with Magic."

As promised, Johnson immediately retired and became a spokesman for HIV and AIDS prevention. Even though Magic was technically no longer an NBA player, Stern instructed Rosen to fly to New York weekly to meet with him and keep him apprised of the physical and mental hurdles Magic was navigating.

Magic introduced Stern to Elizabeth Glaser, an AIDS activist who had contracted the HIV virus through a contaminated blood transfusion and had unknowingly passed it on to her two children. Her story was heartbreaking, and further strengthened Stern's resolve to back the HIV and AIDS community.

Johnson waited and waited to feel like a man who was dying, but his symptoms were minimal. By December he was bored, and by January he was itching to play again.

He was the leader in the All-Star voting. He felt fine. He called Stern and asked him if he could play.

The commissioner, knowing he was racheting up the stakes, said yes -- and braced himself for the outcry that would follow.

He fielded phone calls from a handful of his owners who insisted Johnson should remain sidelined, who fretted aloud about the safety of their own players.

The commissioner warned them they'd be slapped with a lawsuit if they discriminated against Magic. It could lead, he explained, to mandatory HIV testing for every player in the league, something both Stern and the Players Association vehemently opposed.

Stern asked his owners if they were certain that Magic Johnson was the only NBA player who was HIV positive.

"Because I'm not," he said.

Another owner urged the commissioner to conduct "some polling" on the issue before he welcomed Magic back.

"That doesn't work for me," Stern countered. "I want us to affect the polls."

The owners weren't the only ones with reservations. Players, coaches, general managers and trainers had questions of their own.

"It was volatile," Stern conceded, "but the approach was to make it seem very unvolatile."

The owners agreed to stand behind Stern's decision, but it was hardly unanimous. A potential public relations nightmare hovered over the NBA for the next several months.

"I work for what I believe is in the best interest of all the owners," said Stern. "There are times when a particular owner or team has a different view. When events are fast-moving, I have to do what is best for the league. For the most part, the owners took our lead."


We were in a crisis, but David was ahead of it because he had so thoroughly educated himself on the topic. ... After a couple of weeks, it all died down -- which, when you think about it, was amazing."

"-- Rod Thorn

Pacers owner Herb Simon confirmed the uncharted waters of Magic's potential return ignited discussion, debate and some dissension.

"We were all concerned in the beginning," Simon said, "but the way David handled it was so right on. By the time he was done [briefing us], I wasn't concerned for the league at all."

The players were not so sure. They were terrified of contracting the HIV virus from Magic. His own Lakers teammates were afraid to work out or shoot baskets with him.

"Players were grumbling, wives were grumbling, and by the way, they were absolutely right," Rosen said. "You've got to remember, back then everyone thought if Earvin shook their hand, they'd die."

Charles Barkley, who starred for the Philadelphia 76ers at the time, said what Stern did next diffused the brewing controversy -- he ordered every NBA franchise to be visited by a physician who would separate facts from fiction regarding HIV and AIDS.

"The doctor sat us all down and let us clear the air," Barkley said. "He covered everything anyone wanted to ask. He told us we couldn't get HIV from rubbing up against someone or bumping into them. We couldn't get it from their sweat or from a cut. That was important, because nobody knew anything about the disease.

"It was so smart of David to send those doctors. It took the pressure and stress out of the entire situation."

There was still the matter of the NBA sponsors who had pumped millions of dollars into a product that suddenly had a different bent. Magic's sparkling personality had made him a coveted endorsement target, but overnight, he had turned into an advertising pariah.

"There was some trepidation [from the sponsors], let me tell you that," said Rod Thorn, who was the NBA's vice president of basketball operations at the time. "We were in a crisis, but David was ahead of it because he had so thoroughly educated himself on the topic. He could shoot down any doubts people had. After a couple of weeks, it all died down -- which, when you think about it, was amazing."

The 1992 All-Star Weekend was transformed into a referendum on HIV and AIDS awareness. Medical experts held news conferences and fielded media queries.

Stern's wife Diane invited Glaser to speak at the league's annual newsmakers luncheon. Glaser, who was very ill, moved the crowd to tears detailing the isolation her young daughter experienced because of her illness. Glaser also debunked the erroneous assumptions of how the illness spread. Afterwards, a woman who said her son would be presenting the trophy to the MVP of the game that Sunday approached Glaser and Stern.

"She said how terribly ashamed she was that she told her son not to shake hands with Magic if he won," Stern said.

Magic was the runaway MVP on a memorable Sunday. He scored 25 points (on 9-of-12 shooting), dished 9 assists, got the best of both Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas in some mini-isolations, then drained a long 3-pointer to end the game.

"It was like a Hollywood movie," said Granik.

The climax was the bear hug the commissioner and the first openly HIV infected NBA player shared at midcourt when the game was over.

It was, Stern said, one of his most rewarding memories of his long tenure.

"It sort of helped us begin to firm up our view there was something about the medium of sports that resonated with people," Stern said. "Whether it was Magic and HIV, or the values we espoused in China about exercising to promote health and fitness, or India where we wanted to instill a sense of confidence and achievement for young people. We could affect change."

That change went global when Johnson expressed his plans to keep his roster spot in the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. The international community barked in protest. An official from the Australian Olympic Federation recommended his team boycott the Games if Magic was allowed to suit up. One of the Australian players said he'd accept a silver medal rather than battle Magic on the court for the gold. Stern utilized his global influence to again smooth the waters for Magic.

"Without David, there's no way Magic gets that gold medal," said Rosen. "Not a chance."

Johnson attempted two more short-lived comebacks. One, in 1992-93, was thwarted by lingering paranoia about his condition, fueled by uninformed comments from Karl Malone and Mark Price. The other, in 1995-96, was an ill-advised attempt by an aging superstar to re-capture a glorious Hall of Fame career that was behind him.

By 1996, nobody was talking any longer about Magic's HIV status. It had become a moot point.

Stern suspects there are current NBA players who are HIV positive, but he said, "it hasn't come up."

"We lecture the rookies, we have team awareness meetings, we have the appropriate medical staff," he said. "It's business as usual."

For those who lived through the tumult of Stern's resolve to support the HIV and AIDS community, that is the most remarkable development of all.

"It was one of the seminal moments in David's 30 years," Granik said. "It was a real crisis for the NBA. It received worldwide coverage. Everyone was watching. We felt very proud, in the aftermath, that we had done the right thing."

As the reign of Stern comes to a close, his unrelenting support of Magic will receive little mention. Instead, he will be heralded for his successful business model, his globalization of the game and his cutting edge marketing strategies.

"I remember how it was before he became commissioner," Herb Simon said. "I remember the closed curtains up on the second level of my arena."

Magic Johnson helped reverse the NBA's fortunes, but his lasting memory of the commissioner is his willingness to embrace him while others backed away.

"Without David Stern," Magic told me in 2009, "I wouldn't be standing here today. He gave my life back."

There is a photograph on the retiring commissioner's wall that will come down Friday, his final day. It is a picture of a sweaty Magic and a euphoric Stern sharing that All-Star hug.

After all these years, the man who refuses to be rattled admits he is still moved by the moment.