Keeping Score

Magic Johnson and HIV: The Lasting Impact of Nov. 7, 1991

Twenty years ago, Magic Johnson announced that he contracted HIV. Why that day will live forever

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Craig Fujii / AP

Magic Johnson announces that he is HIV positive on Nov. 7, 1991

Nov. 7, 1991, seemed like it would be a typical practice day for the Los Angeles Lakers. The season had just started, and the Lakers were trying to defend their Western Conference title, hoping to hang yet another championship banner atop the Great Western Forum. Yes, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had beat them for their first title that June, and looked to have the making of a dynasty. But the Lakers still had some leftover talent from the 1980s, the decade in which they won five championships. Guys like James Worthy, Byron Scott and, of course, Magic Johnson, had plenty of basketball left.

That morning A.C. Green, the iron-man Laker power forward who would eventually play in 1,192 consecutive games, an NBA record, was doing his prepractice stretching. Suddenly, Green says, Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy announced that instead of taking the practice court at Loyola Marymount University, the team would be heading over to the Forum for a mandatory meeting.

(See photos of Magic Johnson’s sports career.)

Weird, Green thought. He knew this meeting must be important. But when the Lakers arrived at the Forum locker room, the guys were still joking around, staying loose. That changed in a hurry, however. Before Johnson shook the world, he would shake his Laker teammates. “The meeting was turned over to Magic really soon,” says Green. “He said, ‘I want to talk to you guys first. And let you know what’s going on first. I’ve contracted the HIV virus, and for right now, I know I’m going to have to stop playing. I might have to retire. We’re trying to find out more.'”

To Green, these words had clear implications, and they had very little to do with the basketball court. “You were hearing that your teammate, your friend, your brother has this illness that, at that time, there wasn’t a lot of recovery from,” Green says. “It was more of a death sentence.'” Green’s eyes began to dart across the room. “And now, the emotion, the impact of what he said just starts to settle,” Green says. “The laughing, the jovial, the practical jokes being told and all that was going on before — now, you could hear a pin drop. Guys start to cry because of the magnitude of what he just said. Because you know there’s nothing you can physically do for him to change the situation.”

Later that day, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, then 32, stepped in front of the cameras to address the world. “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained,” he said, “I will have to retire from the Lakers.” That day, NBA commissioner David Stern, who sat next to Johnson at the press conference, should have been in Utah to announce that the 1993 All-Star game would take place in Salt Lake City. Instead, after hearing a quivering Lakers general manager Jerry West deliver the news over the phone the previous night, Stern — who, like many, thought Johnson was going to die — took an early plane from New York to Los Angeles. On the longest of flights, Stern, who still calls that day the worst of his tenure as commissioner, remembers “thinking about how people within our sport might react to the fact that I was heading out to LA to give someone support who was HIV positive, which had been demonized.”

(Read “AIDS at 30: Medical Milestones in the Battle Against a Modern Plague.”)

Johnson’s former Lakers coach, Pat Riley, was in his first year coaching the New York Knicks. That morning, he was in his Madison Square Garden office, preparing for that night’s game against Orlando. One of Johnson’s confidants called him with the news. “I’ve had five or six of those days in my life that I remember where I was, what I was doing, when hearing about something in history,” Riley says. “That was one of those days. It was an incredible feeling of sadness, worry and concern for him.” Before that night’s game, Riley led the New York City crowd in a prayer for Johnson. West, the Hall of Fame player who has detailed his battles with depression in a new autobiography, West by West, also took the news hard. “After I walked away from that press conference, I’ll never forget it,” says West. “I just went into my office and said, ‘Ho-ly Christ.'”

Monday will mark the 20th anniversary of Johnson’s announcement, a day which changed the course of NBA history and so much more. Johnson’s career would be cut short, and fans were robbed of his artistry. (Johnson did return to the Lakers for a brief stint in 1996.) On a far more important level, Nov. 7, 1991, changed the debate about an epidemic that was still ravaging communities across the country. “It made people notice, for the first time, that you can get infected with HIV without being gay, without being a drug user, without being a sex worker,” says Kevin Frost, CEO of amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. “A lot of people took notice, and that changed the perception of how people got infected, and who was at risk.”

(Read ” It Can Happen to Anybody. Even Magic Johnson.”)

And since that day, Johnson has changed the perception of what it means to live with HIV. By not only surviving the past 20 years, but also by all appearances remaining healthy while becoming a prosperous businessman who has replicated his on-court success in the boardroom, Johnson has shown that HIV doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Johnson is still the most visible, high-profile symbol of a fact unimaginable in 1991. HIV can be beat.

For a generation who did not live through momentous events like the Kennedy assassination or Nixon’s resignation, Nov. 7, 1991, was a historic marker of its own. Classrooms across the country dedicated the next day to HIV-AIDS education, and NBA fans and nonfans alike wrestled issues that seem obvious in retrospect. Yes, unprotected heterosexual encounters could transmit the disease. (From the start, Johnson was very open about the cost of his carousing.) Why did he have to stop playing? Could you actually contract the virus through sweat? When does HIV infection transform into full-blown AIDS?

(Watch TIME’s video “10 Questions for Magic Johnson.”)

The day after his announcement, Johnson appeared on the late-night talk show of his friend, Arsenio Hall. There, he adamantly denied rumors that he was gay. The crowd cheered wildly, as if Johnson had just won another championship, or announced he’d been cured. Today, it’s hard to imagine a denial of homosexuality would be greeted with such enthusiasm (though, as Frost points out, an audience booed a gay soldier asking a question of the candidates at the Sept. 22, 2011, Republican presidential debate).

Since 1991, some in the HIV community have periodically accused Johnson of dialing back his activism. Frost, however, admires Johnson’s HIV-education efforts. “He’s done a great deal of work around the issue. He’s been living with this disease for 20 years, been outspoken and tried to reach communities at risk. He’s been a real warrior.” Still, he insists that we shouldn’t overstate his impact. “I don’t think Magic’s announcement effected broad change,” Frost says. “Huge challenges still remain, around stigma and discrimination. There are still political challenges, research challenges, and of course, all of this is happening against this economic background, so there are enormous financial challenges to addressing the epidemic. We have a lot of work to do.”

In his fight against HIV, Johnson has had enormous advantages, most importantly access to the most cutting-edge health care. In the mid-1990s, noted AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho (TIME’s 1996 Man of the Year) put Johnson on new antiretroviral medications, before they were available to the general public. He continues to take Trizivir and Kaletra, two HIV treatment drugs, and does not have AIDS. Regardless, 20 years later he’s a symbol of hope. “People look at him now, they go, ‘Oh, my God,'” says West. “‘He’s still with us, he’s doing great. I wish I can face up to some of the challenges that I have like he does.'”

Green, Johnson’s teammate and friend, visited him at his office just last week. They reflected on that day, which Green still remembers vividly. After that press conference, Green walked to the parking lot. “I got to my car, and I probably had my third long cry,” Green says. He tried to drive home but had to pull over. “Everything I had known at that particular time, he was a part of,” says Green. “As far as basketball, adjusting to the NBA, just as a friend. When I finally got home, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I was just reliving that locker-room conversation.”

(Read “Anti-HIV Drugs Help Prevent Infection in Heterosexuals.”)

Green has long been an outspoken advocate of premarital celibacy, and remained a virgin until marrying in 2002. But Green says he never had an “I told you so” moment with Johnson. After the announcement, they talked about making the best of a dire situation, about Johnson preaching responsibility to kids. To Green, Johnson has followed through on those promises.

During their meeting last week, Johnson and Green shared their amazement. It’s 20 years later, and Johnson is still here. “We just laughed and shook our heads, because there’s really no other response,” Green says. “Two 6-ft.-9-in. guys with a dumbfounded look, like, ‘I know, man.'”

“‘I know.'”

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Keeping Score, his sports column for TIME.com, appears on Fridays. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘sFacebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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