20 years ago today, Magic Johnson announced his retirement from basketball following his diagnosis of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Today there will be stirring and wonderful tributes to one of the greatest players in NBA history, and by all accounts a man that has done more with his life than most healthy people do. From his business acumen to his philanthropic efforts, Johnson has become a symbol for more than just a brilliant basketball player.
In these types of columns, you're faced with the challenge of wanting to say the obvious, in this case, Magic is awesome and his announcement 20 years ago was at once terrifying and unforgettable, and wanting to do so in a way that's unique from all the other great words being shared today. For me, I'm left with not what Magic's announcement meant at the time, but what it means today. It's impossible to relate how Johnson's announcement that he was HIV-positive affected me or the world then. I was nine. But having seen Johnson's life through the past twenty years, if a player came out tomorrow to announce a positive diagnosis for HIV, it's stunning how drastically different it would be.
It wouldn't be a death sentence. Johnson acts as a symbol to anyone who contracts the virus that their life isn't over. Not only is Johnson still alive, he has yet to contract AIDS, and by all accounts is in good health. While his lifestyle is no doubt impacted by his diagnosis, he has lead a happy and full life. He's a presence at public events nearly daily, he's a spokesperson for his foundation promoting research and awareness, he's a part owner of the Lakers and a network broadcaster, for crying out loud. Anyone to contract the virus would have faced terror and anxiety with no real awareness of what it means 20 years ago. And while Johnson is only a small part of the effort to raise awareness of the realities of HIV and AIDS, his stature and continued efforts and energy provide an inescapable road sign that says the journey is not over. HIV does not run your life.
If a player were to announce his diagnosis of HIV tomorrow, there wouldn't be the terror-filled reactions we saw in 1991 from players regarding health concerns. The player would be embraced by teammates and fellow players, he would be supported by coaches, fans, the league. It's a much different world today than it was 20 years ago, obviously, but particularly in this realm. There would be fears of contact through cuts, I'm sure, but overall the tone would be dramatically different.
|Magic announces HIV: 20 years later|
2.5 million people are estimated to have been infected with HIV in 2009. An estimated 33.3 million people are living each day without the means Magic Johnson has to combat the illness. We're still trying to find a cure, still trying to find better ways to treat it and contain it and live with it. But the world is a better place when it comes to dealing with HIV and AIDS than it was twenty years ago, and Magic Johnson has been part of that. In a world where we seem to be constantly finding ways we fail ourselves, maybe it's good to take some level of celebration in a pattern of hope.