Just before stepping in front of a black curtain and into a wired room waiting for a doomsday announcement, then-32-year-old Magic Johnson needed a clarification. He turned to Los Angeles Lakers doctor Michael Mellman to be sure he had his facts in order.
“So, doc, I just want to make sure I’ve got this right: It’s HIV, not AIDS, right?” Johnson said.
“Yeah,” Mellman responded. “You’ve got an HIV infection, but you haven’t developed AIDS yet and that’s an important distinction to make.”
Johnson grasped the podium with two hands in front of the television cameras and reporters to announce the news a few NBA friends knew and millions were about to learn. One of the pre-eminent athletes in sports history had found out he was HIV positive. He would be leaving basketball, taking his no-look passes and supernova personality away to fight for his life.
“Um … because of the, um … HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,” Johnson said.
He wore a black suit. To his right was his new, and pregnant, wife, Cookie. To his left, then-NBA commissioner David Stern. In all, eight people sat next to Johnson at blue-draped tables as he delivered the seismic news.
A Los Angeles news outlet had learned of Johnson’s diagnosis and was set to deliver the information. Once the Lakers found that out, they moved up their press conference which had been in the planning stages. CNN carried the announcement live. Johnson spoke for just over nine minutes. He concluded by saying, “I’ll see you soon.”
That was November 7, 1991. The seemingly dire announcement became the groundwork for a legendary day that would take place in Orlando just three months later. Johnson was out of the league, but had been voted into the All-Star Game. The NBA cleared a path for his participation by creating a 13th roster spot. Golden State Warriors point guard Tim Hardaway relinquished his starting spot to Johnson. The stage was set.
On Feb. 9, 1992, the always vivacious Johnson was again on the court against rivals and friends who wondered how he would play, how the virus was spread and just how long he had to live. Those questions were answered, with typical Johnson flair, 25 years ago, when, for one spellbinding day, the All-Star Game became something much more than the NBA’s annual exhibition game.
Breaking the news
Lloyd’s of London had declined to give the Lakers a verbal reason as to why Johnson’s insurance policy was denied. Instead, they shipped information to Mellman’s Inglewood office, which was located minutes away from The Great Western Forum. The Lakers doctor signed for the packet and opened it.
Mellman wondered the insurer had passed on Johnson because of “athlete’s heart” or a bad electrocardiogram. They were common causes for a failed physical, at the time. Johnson’s preseason physical with Mellman had given no indication something was wrong. However, after reading the dispatch’s content, his first thought was fraught with uneasiness.
“Oh, [expletive],” Mellman said recently in a phone interview. “It wasn’t a pleasant thought and I’m sure it reflected my concern for the individual. You go back to that era and that was still a time when people were being tested, they were often symptomatic. And there was a very short life span for some people after they were noted to be HIV positive. So, we weren’t as comfortable with the disease then — I don’t mean comfortable in a pleasant way — we weren’t as familiar with the disease then as we are now. The death rate was much higher right after diagnosis. So, it was a great deal of uncertainty and concern for the individual.”
He called Johnson and told him to immediately return to Los Angeles. He could not tell him why.
“Get back here as soon as you possibly can.”
Then, Mellman notified the team that he had called Johnson in. He told assistant general manager Mitch Kupchak and trainer Gary Vitti that Johnson was out, but he could not elaborate. Mellman was in his 10th year with the team and it was the first time he had made such a request or demand. No one challenged it.
“So, it just happened,” Mellman said.
The press conference to deliver the news was moved from Friday to Thursday to head off the leak of Johnson’s diagnosis. Everyone assembled knew this would become an international topic in a perplexing time for information about the virus. Confusion ranged from how it was contracted, to how it was spread, to how long someone was able to live if they acquired HIV. The Lakers organization tried to plan out the press conference, but was forced to go forth with it unscripted. Mellman and Dr. Esther Hays remained after Johnson spoke in order to answer medical questions. An impromptu HIV/AIDS education was about to begin for thousands.
“We were concerned for the individual because we were really stopping his career at a time when it shouldn’t have been stopped,” Mellman said. “As far as all of us were concerned, it was an uncertain outcome at that time, even though there were things said at the press conference … I tried to offer some hope and optimism toward the end of that, which is more my nature than anything else. But, I think none of us had a sense of what the future was.”
The jolt from the news began to ripple through the NBA before Johnson reached the podium. His agent, Lon Rosen, had called Larry Bird to tell him Johnson was going to hold a press conference to announce the diagnosis. Word also began to spread around the league in other ways.
“We were in the locker room in Phoenix,” Jeff Hornacek said. “We were playing for the Suns and Kurt Rambis was on our team at that point. When it came up — I think it was even before the announcement — we were in a practice and Kurt obviously had known, been great friends with Magic, that this was coming and tried to alert us. We were all just kind of sitting there kind of shocked.”
“It was just stunned silence,” said Dan Majerle, Hornacek’s teammate. “Nobody could believe the news and what we were hearing. It just shocked everybody. Everybody was stunned because he’s a basketball icon. You thought more about his health and back then it was, to me at least, to everybody, it was a death sentence. You thought that that’s not going to happen, that’s unbelievable that somebody like Magic Johnson could die of a disease like this.”
“I was in Oakland,” Hardaway said. “We were on our way to practice. That’s how we found out. We knew he had a cold, he was sick, something like that. But we didn’t know what it was, what the ramifications was, what was happening, what was going on. We kind of heard through the grapevine that he was going to come out and have a press conference … Everybody was stunned.”
“I found out right after practice, right after shootaround,” Isiah Thomas said. “Mark Aguirre and I were leaving The Palace and I got a call from a Lakers PR agent and he said that Magic was having a press conference and he was announcing that he was HIV positive and he would call us back.
“Mark and I pulled over under a viaduct. We both were in shock. We hugged each other and cried for about 10, 15 minutes on a back road under the viaduct, just totally in shock. That’s how we found out.”
Bird watched the press conference in Boston. His biggest rival had become his friend over time, and there he was on TV, telling the world he had contracted HIV. Johnson vowed to fight the virus in his typical upbeat tone during the press conference. Bird listened and hoped, but had a hard time fighting back what his gut thought to be true.
“I remember reflecting back on all the games we played against one another,” Bird said in a recent phone interview. “The championships we went through with Boston-LA. But, I was like everybody else. You can say what you want, but it’s really seven or eight years was about the end of it. I think everybody anticipated every year you see Magic, he’s going to go downhill. But it was just the opposite. He got stronger, it seemed like. Fought it. Watching that press conference wasn’t one of the best things you ever done.”
Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in 1991. The CDC reported at the end of the year one million Americans were infected with HIV. In the U.S., 206,563 cases of AIDS had been reported to date. Among them were 156,143 deaths, according to amfAR.
In independent interviews, Hornacek, Majerle, Hardaway and Bird all used the same phrase when asked what they thought the HIV diagnosis meant for Johnson’s future.
Johnson, who declined through representatives to be interviewed for this story, rapidly became an educational advocate. The announcement alone sent Hardaway and others in search of more information. Thomas already had an intimate relationship with the virus since his brother was HIV positive.
Johnson was cleared by the league to play in the All-Star Game. Fan voting convinced the league to include him, and he became a starter when Hardaway stepped aside, despite averaging a career-high 23.4 points and 10 assists that season and receiving the second-most votes among active players. He made the decision with his heart and logic.
“I knew, if I was playing, and Magic Johnson was still playing, still when I was giving them numbers, 20 and 10, my team was right there and Don Nelson was the head coach, that’s Magic Johnson,” Hardaway said. “He would have started over me anyway. Let’s be realistic. That’s Magic Johnson.”
Two tests came the Saturday before the game. Typically, All-Star teams go through a modest practice the day before the game. Western Conference All-Star coach Don Nelson made his team scrimmage. They ran 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 drills. Three-man weave. Worked half-court defense, went up and down the floor. Hardaway equated it to Golden State’s regular practices. Nelson wanted answers about Johnson’s conditioning, skills and ability to blend in.
“Because Magic hadn’t played in so long and I wanted to have him feel comfortable in a full-court game, so we scrimmaged for over an hour the day before,” Nelson said. “It was a good scrimmage. Not screwing around. Magic just put his presence on the scrimmage and everybody was real comfortable after that. Magic, I think, was more comfortable that he could run up and down and play and everything was going to be good. His legs were good. The other players felt good, that, hey, the guy still could play. I think that was an important thing we did the day before and I think it kind of set up the game.”
For the Eastern All-Stars, a different test occurred the day before the game. Thomas, who was head of the players’ union at the time and at the back of the “Bad Boys” era in Detroit, delivered orders at a team meeting. Players on both sides had expressed concerns about playing against or with Johnson. Slowly, a better understanding of the difference between HIV and AIDS was occurring. But inaccurate concerns about transfer of the virus through open wounds and general hesitation still hung in the air. Thomas decided to address the issue head-on.
“I remember standing up in front of the room and saying that Magic’s going to play and when he’s introduced, we’re all going to go up to give him a hug and give him a kiss and tell him that we love him,” Thomas said in a recent phone interview. “There was silence in the room for maybe a good five to 10 seconds, and I remember Brad Daugherty was the first to stand up and say, ‘I’m with you.’ When Brad stood up, everyone else joined in.”
Daugherty had concerns when he heard of the diagnosis, but he’d reached out to the Cleveland Clinic to become educated and quickly learned his odds of being infected when playing against an HIV-positive person were infinitesimal.
“In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Isiah’s going way out on a limb here because no one in this room is going to follow him and no one in that other room is going to follow him down that rabbit hole, but I said to myself, I’ll stand by him on this because I do think it’s the right thing to do,” Daugherty told The Washington Times this week. “It’s not the most popular thing to do, obviously, but I think if it was anyone one of us it would be the right thing to do. It just happened to be one of the biggest stars on the planet.”
No one knew for sure how well Johnson would play after months away from the game, but that wasn’t the primary concern for Mellman, who had worked with Dr. David Ho, a renowned researcher for HIV treatment care, to be sure Johnson was healthy enough to step back on the court.
“Who cares if he played poorly?” Mellman said. “He was making a public statement. It wasn’t his playing. It was his being there. I had no fear for him at all. I can’t even begin to tell you how unique this individual is. I think everyone was wondering how the players around him would react. That could have been an issue. I had no fear for the man. Absolutely not. I can’t imagine a downside to this event. I think that … what would happen? People would think he would drop dead on the court? That was not even an option. He wasn’t sick. He had an infection, but he wasn’t impaired.”
At the game, Johnson was introduced last. He waved to the standing crowd at the Orlando Arena in Florida, then waved again. Thomas, whose once-tight bond with Johnson had been loosening, nevertheless made good on his decree. Just like he would do for his brother, Thomas kissed Johnson on the cheek and hugged him. The approach of Dennis Rodman produced an, “Oh, no!” and a laugh from Johnson. Other Eastern Conference players followed. After he lined up again, Johnson’s cheeks inflated before delivering a large exhale through his mouth. Michael Bolton began to sing the national anthem.
Calling the game was a friend. Dick Enberg had met Johnson back when the point guard was a college basketball luminary for Michigan State. The Spartans had just blown out Lamar in the second round of the 1979 NCAA Tournament in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, when Enberg was dispatched from his play-by-play spot to talk with Johnson and Greg Kelser. The network needed fill between games.
Enberg waited. And waited. Another game had caught the producer’s attention, prompting them to air the end. Meanwhile, Enberg made small talk with the two Michigan State stars. After 15 minutes went by, Enberg was informed the network had run out of time. There would be no interview. He explained to Johnson.
“He gave me one of those incredible smiles of his and slapped me on the back and said, ‘That’s OK, Dick. We’ll do it again later,’” Enberg said.
That was the start of a relationship that included multiple highlights through the 1980s, when Johnson thrived on the floor. Enberg put together an ad-libbed essay about his friend’s HIV announcement during a Notre Dame football broadcast two days after the news broke. In his commentary, Enberg opined that if any person had the strength to carry such a weight, it would be Johnson. Later, he did an extended sit-down interview with Johnson in the weeks before the All-Star Game.
“He was very open and honest and he was the least emotional person in the room,” Enberg said. “When he finished the interview, and he walked away, our cameraman, and yours truly, we all had tears rolling down our cheeks.”
Johnson grabbed the ball off the opening tip. His first pass was a turnover. His first finger roll in the post against Thomas was short, then he was fouled. His first made free throw drew a cheer. He made his second free throw. Johnson had his first two points to get going.
He zoomed down the court for a fast-break layup off a made basket. Again, he dragged Thomas into the post, this time for a sky hook that swished. Another fast break layup followed. Hardaway subbed in for him at the first commercial break. By the end of the first quarter, Johnson had scored 10 points.
“When he started playing, he looked like the same old Magic,” Hardaway said.
Bird was in Boston. His cranky back had sapped his ability to play. Johnson’s announcement had also hit him hard. When they were in their prime together, shooting commercials in the summer, pursuing wins in the winter and spring, they pulled the NBA through a renaissance. Rivals, then off-court friends, he was amused by Johnson’s ability to deliver on a day of such scrutiny.
“He lives for them moments,” Bird said with a laugh. “I can remember some of the guys that really didn’t feel like they wanted to play against him. But once he got out there and you start to compete a little bit, the juices got flowing. That’s right up his alley.”
Rodman stepped up to guard Johnson in the second quarter. They began to bump in the post, and any free run Johnson had earlier in the game was being taken away by one of the game’s great characters. Rodman pushed back at Johnson, who was forced to repost. He hit a contested sky hook to reach 16 points in 11 minutes before halftime.
“Dennis Rodman made a point to guard Magic to let him know we’re not scared of you, we’re going to come after you like we come after anybody,” Hardaway said. “And this is your game that you wanted to showcase that you still got it, well, I’m going to stick you and let’s see if you still got it. Which he did.”
At halftime, Bob Costas explained that there “has always been a theatrical aspect to his personality. He is a showman. A showman needs the stage. And a showman needs a final bow.”
It was coming.
Johnson did not score in the third quarter. He was also quiet to start the fourth. With 9:58 to play, Enberg pointed out that Johnson had not scored since the first half. A few minutes later, the curtain raised.
Johnson’s first 3-pointer went in with less than three minutes to play. It was shot from several feet behind the line with Thomas looking on in what had become a blowout.
The next possession Johnson hit his second 3-pointer. Thomas playfully pushed him on the way back up the floor.
Johnson zipped a one-handed pass to Majerle three possessions later. It became his final All-Star Game assist when Majerle scored on a reverse layup.
“I wish I would have dunked it now,” Majerle said. “I was so nervous to miss it — he was up top dribbling and I back cut my guy and he made a beautiful pass. I caught it and went up and under and scored and that was his last assist. I thought that was extremely cool.”
Thomas tried to score on Johnson in an isolation. He shot an air ball.
Michael Jordan was next. The crowd rose as he lined up Johnson. His baseline jumper was off.
Jordan and Thomas trapped Johnson on his way up the floor for the final possession, temporarily trying to prevent him from receiving the ball. A pass eventually found him. The shot clock hit five when Johnson stepped back to hoist a 3-pointer against Thomas. The swish was followed by Johnson throwing a fist and Enberg delivering his eternal alert that something succulent had just occurred.
Competition is life
Johnson smiled. Hugs came in waves from both sides as the clock ran out. Back in Boston, Bird had watched the last few minutes of the game. He had seen this show before.
The game could not have gone better for all parties. Johnson was named MVP of his 12th and final All-Star Game. Hardaway was convinced he had made the right decision. As was Thomas, whose relationship with Johnson would become strained before being recovered and labeled by Thomas as “all love.” Majerle had a blessed memory for a Michigan guy.
Johnson’s on-court interview was pumped through the arena’s speakers.
“I want to thank the players that decided that everything would be all right if they played with me and against me,” Johnson said. “Maybe you will see me back, maybe you won’t.”
That doubt could be interpreted in multiple ways. Was Johnson simply talking about basketball after the coming Olympics? Or were the stakes higher?
He shut down an attempted return the next season in part because of continued player blowback. He made a 32-game comeback in 1996 to finish his NBA playing career, able to leave because he said he was done. Not because someone else had.
“There was a lot of uneasiness and uncertainty within the league and within the athlete community in general,” Mellman said. “There were some that embraced him and some that were uncomfortable with that, which is what you’d expect. It was a new concept and he was the first to publicly declare himself.
“We’ll never know how many people knew and didn’t declare themselves. We’ll never know how many people subsequently tested themselves — I’m talking about NBA players now — and knew what their status was and either privately kept it or was kept within the team or public. We assume that Earvin wasn’t the only one in the NBA that was HIV positive. That would have been a stupid assumption.”
Johnson’s life has gone in new directions since that time. Basketball gave way to advocacy and business pursuits. He had to repair personal relationships, including the one with his wife. He developed Magic Johnson Enterprises. He became a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Johnson does television work for ABC, has a foundation, speaking engagements and just this week returned to the Lakers as an adviser to owner Jeanie Buss, whose father, Jerry, owned the Lakers at the time of the announcement.
“He’s all over the place,” Bird said. “Believe me. Every time I walk on the court, there he stands. He don’t hold back. He’s out there moving around. It might have slowed him down for a while, but he snapped out of it. The 25-year thing, time flies. It’s great to see him able to get out and do the things he enjoys doing. There’s a lot of memories there. He’ll be fine. He’s a worker. He’s dedicated his life to the business end of it and he gets his competition through it.”
More than a quarter century has elapsed since Mellman signed for that life-altering message from Lloyd’s. His reverence for Johnson is full when he looks at how the NBA great has handled himself, from receiving the news to the All-Star Game to now.
“He always had this sense of acceptance of what it was and determination to move on and do whatever it took to get on with life,” Mellman said. “It’s, ‘OK, I’ve got a knee that doesn’t work, I’ll just go and figure out how to deal with it.’ This wasn’t a knee, obviously. His approach was incredibly unique to me in part because this was unknown and in part because it was a devastating diagnosis and in part because many people thought it carried a life sentence, including those of us that were caring for him. We just didn’t know what his path going to be.”
Johnson, now 57, was recently in the ABC studios to do analyst work. He talked with the effervescence many thought would have been gone by now. When the World Series champion Chicago Cubs were mentioned, Johnson reminded with a laugh not to mention the team that beat his Dodgers. He had foundation and business dealings in the following days, then needed to prep for his trip to New Orleans, the site of this season’s All-Star Game.
A quarter century after his moment in Orlando, someone who has done so much, still has much to do.