On This Day

magic johnson, magic johnson hiv, magic johnson aids, magic johnson hiv press conference
Craig Fujii/AP
Magic Johnson announces that he is
HIV-positive.

On This Day: Magic Johnson Reveals That He Has HIV

November 07, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 7, 1991, Lakers guard Magic Johnson held a press conference to reveal that he was HIV-positive. The announcement raised awareness of HIV/AIDS, particularly that it could be spread through heterosexual sex.

Magic Retires Due to HIV

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In October 1991, Los Angeles Lakers guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson took a routine physical for a life insurance policy. On Oct. 25, he was called into the doctor’s office, where he was told that he tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Amid rumors that he had contracted AIDS, Johnson held a press conference on Nov. 7 to reveal his condition. “Because of the HIV virus I have attained,” he began, “I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

The public was shocked. “It was, for so many people, the first time the AIDS epidemic had really hit home,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Leigh Montville. Though other well-known figures had contracted HIV/AIDS, Montville wrote that they “always seemed remote. Other people. Strangers. Magic’s problem was our problem. He was at the table.”

In the early ’90s, there were many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. Even Johnson, 15 minutes before his press conference, did not know that there was a difference between HIV and AIDS. It was also widely believed that only homosexuals and drug addicts were at risk for HIV/AIDS; Johnson demonstrated that it could be contracted through unprotected heterosexual sex.

Johnson vowed to dedicate his life to educating others about HIV/AIDS, working to remove the disease’s stigma and promote safe sexual habits. “To me, AIDS was someone else’s disease. It was a disease for gays and drug users. Not for someone like me,” Johnson wrote in Sports Illustrated. “My ignorance could cost me my life, but I wanted to try and ensure that no one else would become infected with HIV for the same reason.”

Magic’s Comeback and Retirement

Johnson’s revelation helped raise awareness for HIV/AIDS, causing a sharp rise in HIV testing in the weeks following the press conference. “The announcement by Mr. Johnson, one of the most popular and accomplished players in basketball, stunned the nation and drove home the message that heterosexuals are in danger of getting AIDS,” wrote The New York Times.

Though doctors said he was too weak to play basketball, Johnson played in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game (winning game MVP), won a gold medal playing with the “Dream Team” in the 1992 Olympics, and attempted a comeback in 1992-93. However, he aborted the comeback as many players said they worried that Johnson would infect them. He did return three years later, playing in 32 games before retiring for good.

Off the court, Johnson has been active in HIV/AIDS charity and education, establishing the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise money. He continues to workout frequently, remaining physically fit and AIDS-free.

Everything is great,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose in 2005. “Fourteen years; it’s been a blessing because the medicine has worked. I’ve done my part by working out five days a week, getting my rest. And also I’ve been out trying to talk to especially minorities because it’s affecting our community, HIV/AIDS, in a big way.”

He has also become an incredibly successful entrepreneur, building theaters, coffee shops, gyms and restaurants in the inner city.

Related Topic: Arthur Ashe

Just months after Johnson’s announcement, tennis great Arthur Ashe revealed that he had AIDS, contracted during a 1983 surgery. Over the following year, Ashe worked to “destigmatize” the disease and educate the public about it. He died on Feb. 6, 1993, from complications of AIDS.
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