Earvin "Magic" Johnson was my favorite player growing up after local legend Dr. J. The big smile, the no-look passes on fast breaks, and the visual of a 6'9" point guard had me glued every time the Lakers played. He never made playing in the NBA look like work. I'll never forget the sinking feeling I had when he announced that he had contracted the HIV virus because my understanding at fourteen was that HIV equaled death, and a slow ugly one at that. The movie Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington came out in 1993 and it was easy for me to map the deterioration of Tom Hanks character onto what I thought would happen to Magic. As I watched The Announcement, and relived the context around Magic Johnson alerting the world to his HIV status, I thought about that event in a whole new light.
Magic Johnson was thirty-two years old when he stepped to the podium with his wife Cookie, NBA commissioner David Stern, and teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among others on the dais, and delivered the news that he had contracted the virus through unprotected sex. This was a man who characterized words like "Champion", and "Leader". He was the face of the NBA, and in that moment he became leper. As a thirty-four year old with a family, I marvel at the fortitude that he had to not just confirm it to the media and go into hiding as Karl Malone asserted he could have. He had to face the severe consequence of his actions in front of the world. His wife could have easily left him to deal on his own, and many would have cheered for her as she left. All those years of being the leader of the Lakers along with Kareem were vaporized, and as accountable as he held his teammates on the court, he had to stand there and tell them he had been reckless off the court. And finally, there were his business connections. Athletes depend on these to provide a parachute when they walk off the court, Magic's announcement made him beyond radioactive. Somehow he made it through, and I as I watched him breakdown how he did it, I couldn't help but think about where we are as a country twenty years later as we compare it to where Magic is in his own life.
I was struck by the point Magic made at the end of the documentary when he talked about being a "blessing and a curse" to the disease. A blessing in that he was a public figure who spun the archetype we attached to the disease previously 180 degrees. For a horny adolescent like me, he drove home sex ed lessons in a way that my parents and textbooks could not. His advocacy has brought awareness and money to the fight so that more research can be done. The downside is that you see Magic on ESPN and at events, and you don't immediately think back twenty years, or if you do, you slip into thinking that he's cured, and so maybe that lesson about irresponsible sexual behavior is blurred, and the "downfall" from having contracted the disease isn't as steep when the cautionary tale is told. This is unfortunate to me as I think about how much unfiltered sexual exposure young people get now without the proper guidance and understanding to make mature decisions about sex. For that reason alone, I'm glad The Announcement was made to take us back and allow us to digest that moment again.