Magic, the hero who demystified HIV

LOS ANGELES -- It was a news conference that contained no news.

Sure, it was an inspiring afternoon and a star-studded event that at one point drawing six members of the Basketball Hall of Fame to the stage. But when you get down to it, the principle announcement came down to this: "Here I am."

And that was reason enough to celebrate. Because when Magic Johnson stepped to the podium on Nov. 7, 1991, for The News Conference, the one in which he told the world he was HIV-positive, not a single person who watched thought he would be around to hold another news conference 20 years later.

We underestimated him. It wasn't the first time. We thought his Los Angeles Lakers were done without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the sixth game of the 1980 NBA Finals, because we didn't count on Johnson, in his rookie seaosn, uncorking one of the great performances in NBA history. We thought he'd never live down his failures against the Boston Celtics in the 1984 Finals, then he came back and won the championship the next season. We thought the Lakers' fast break would give way to the Twin Towers setup after the Houston Rockets knocked off the Lakers in 1986, until Johnson returned with his best season yet, resulting in his first MVP award and the front end of back-to-back championships.

You know what else we underestimated? The extent of the pain he felt at having to walk away from the NBA when he was still in his prime.

It's hard to comprehend how anything else could matter to a man that had just learned he was HIV-positive. The news he delivered on that Thursday two decades ago was so stunning that we were too wrapped up in the first part of his opening sentence to fully process the second part: "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers … today."

It took so much courage to step to the microphone and say the opening that we didn't consider the regret that came with the part after the comma. But it's interesting that he gave them almost equal weight when I asked him about what it took to go public with that disclosure and his thoughts right before he stepped to the podium that day.

"[My wife] and I had a long discussion," Johnson said. "We talked for days.
She had reservations in the beginning: How would the public react?
After we talked it over, we both decided it was was the right thing to do. We wanted to save lives and educate people."

As he prepared for the news conference, right after meeting with his teammates in the Forum locker room, it dawned on him that, "I was going to walk away from my family, guys that I've been to war with.

"That's the only thing I knew then, was those guys. I was in the prime of my career. It was a tough, tough decision. But I wanted to live for a long time."

At the time the common wisdom was that he wouldn't, and at the time even a top-notch physician such as Dr. David Ho didn't think it would be a good idea for Johnson to continue playing for the Lakers if he wanted to preserve his body for the fight against HIV. So Johnson retired at age 32, only a year after winning his third MVP award and five months removed from his ninth trip to the NBA Finals. He maintains literally to this day (he even brought it up at the news conference) that things would have been different against the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals if James Worthy didn't hurt his ankle right against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals.

That's the competitor that still exists in Johnson, the one who ached at leaving the game. He quickly transitioned from talking about how much worse the medication back then (he had to take 15 pills a day -- five times what he takes now -- with stronger side effects that hurt his stomach) to talking about how difficult life was without basketball.

"The hardest day was when the Lakers were playing and I wasn't running out of the tunnel with them," Johnson said. "That first day was hard."

Jerry West, who knows from torment, said he felt for Johnson, "watching the thing he loved most be taken away from him."

We don't think of Johnson's career being done that day because he wasn't done done.

He reappeared three months later and made the most memorable jumper in All-Star history, played a starring role in the Dream Team's historic run to Olympic gold, then made that brief return for the final 32 games of the 1995-96 season.

But the days of Magic competing for NBA championships, of choreographing the fast break as well as it's ever been performed, ended on Nov. 7, 1991. That was the final curtain for Showtime.

He has said that he gets more satisfaction from his post-playing days achievements of building a business empire that comprises real estate, investment funds, movie theaters and shopping centers. Never one to harp on his own basketball statistics, he happily rattles off numbers from his Magic Johnson Foundation, such as $10 million raised for AIDS research, HIV testing for 250,000 people and 150 students in college on scholarships his organization has provided.

But he couldn't hide the immense satisfaction he got from seeing his old teammates gathered at Staples Center. Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, Mitch Kupchak, Kurt Rambis and Hall of Famer Worthy were there. So was the Showtime Coach, Pat Riley. And West, the legendary Lakesr player and team executive, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss and former coach Bill Sharman, all in the Hall themselves. Phil Jackson, who never coached Johnson, was in the crowd but didn't join Johnson on stage for a photo op that included longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and Mike Dunleavy, Johnson's coach in 1990-91.

The most valuable teammate, who spent most of the conference on stage with Johnson but vacated for the team picture, was Dr. Ho.

"I don't know what the hell you did," West told Ho, "but [Johnson] looks great."

Johnson's position gave him a huge advantage when he first began the HIV battle. The insurance policy on his multimillion contract required medical testing, which first revealed the virus in its early stages. Then he had access to Ho, one of the preeminent doctors in the AIDS research community, who prescribed Johnson with advanced medications that were exotic at the time. Ho was the one who came up with the "cocktail" mixtures of protease inhibitors and other drugs that swung the advantage in the favor of patients, and was named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1996.

One thing that has changed over the past 20 years is that the type of treatment Johnson receives is now the norm, more than the exception.

"I think Magic's situation is quite typical," Ho said. "The majority of patients who are treated with the current therapy will survive, and his status is a reflection of what most patients are experiencing. It's different from 1991. Back then it was very difficult to use the few available drugs to control the virus now. The situation has changed."

Attitudes have changed as well. One of the reasons Magic's wife, Cookie, was reluctant for him to go public with the news of his HIV status was she feared they would be treated as outcasts. She literally thought no one would hug them again. Instead, she said, "the world embraced us."

That was the power of Johnson's announcement. Suddenly we all knew someone who was HIV-positive. It was someone we cheered for. Someone we liked.

The fear was gone. And, ironically, that is a negative from his long life after the announcement.

"I often say I'm good for the virus and bad for it," Johnson said. "I'm good because I'm doing well and can go out and raise the awareness level and get people tested. On the flip side of that, people see that I'm doing well, so they kind of relaxed on HIV and AIDS."

It's dangerous, because one thing that hasn't changed is the pervasive threat of the disease, particularly in the African-American and Latino communities, where Johnson has focused his awareness efforts.

Ho said, "The HIV/AIDS epidemic rages on. I would use this opportunity to remind everyone that this is perhaps the worst plague in human history. Twenty-five million people have died and more than 30 million are living with the virus."

He said there are 50,000 to 60,000 new cases in the United States per year.

It's still a threat to us, even if the imminent danger to Johnson himself has subsided.

No, things didn't turn out to be as bad for Johnson as they first seemed 20 years ago. With all of the congratulatory tweets and good vibes going around it seemed strange, initially, to be celebrating the anniversary of such awful news. Then I realized that what we were celebrating was not the fact that he got HIV, but that HIV didn't get him.