Decades after his retirement, interest in NBA legend Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson has not dimmed. A recent documentary, an HBO series on his 1980s Lakers and an 800-page biography are testaments to his enduring legacy. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The lasting legacy of Magic Johnson
Here in the Lakers’ press room was the prince of Los Angeles, the smiling enchanter and three-time league MVP Earvin “Magic” Johnson. But he was not smiling now. No one was.
It was November 7, 1991 – 32 years ago as I write this – and Magic had called an impromptu media conference. The suddenness of it, and the fact Magic was flanked by his wife, Cookie, and the NBA’s commissioner, signalled to the assembled journalists something substantial was to come: the announcement of his retirement, most likely. Which it would be, but for reasons no one expected. “Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,” he told the crowded room.
There were audible gasps. Reporters wept. Magic was 32 and, to most of those in the room, had just declared he would soon die. It remains one of sport’s most famous and consequential media conferences.
There was great public shock. Since being drafted by the Lakers in 1979, Magic’s skill had rewritten the role of point guard and helped the Lakers to five championships. His effusive joy once grated teammates but quickly charmed fans and reporters, and his rivalry with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics helped lift the NBA from a marginalised sport to a colossal national entertainment.
And so, when fans thought he was telling them he was going to die soon, hundreds flocked to the Lakers stadium. What else was there to do? It was a spontaneous pilgrimage, an exorcism of bad energy, a chance to glimpse the man and maybe ask him, directly, if it was real. “I came here because I was shocked when I heard about it,” Kenya McClendon told The New York Times outside the Forum. “I wanted to actually see if it was true. It’s still hard to believe. Magic Johnson, of all people. He’s the last person I would expect to be HIV positive.”
“It’s a feeling that can’t be explained,” another fan said. “You feel this attached to a human being who’s not even a relative.”
Magic was a dream and AIDS was a nightmare – one then understood to be uniquely killing gay men and intravenous drug users. “I think sometimes we think, Well, only gay people can get it – it’s not going to happen to me,” Magic said. “And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”
It angered some, quite fairly, that it had taken this public announcement by a heterosexual celebrity to awaken the public to a virus that had already killed tens of thousands but that, during the preceding decade, had been indifferently responded to by the Reagan administration and was broadly, callously considered a “gay plague”, the bearers of which were to be feared and spat on.
Regardless, Johnson had already cast a spell; his charm and talents had fostered deep public attachments. And now, suddenly, his celebrity was a cipher for HIV/AIDS. In his announcement, Magic said he would become a spokesperson for the virus. Two days later, he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show and said: “Having HIV virus, I want everybody to practise safe sex, be aware what’s going on ... I want to educate the public. We don’t have to run from it, be ashamed.”
America’s public dreams and nightmares had conjoined in this smiling prince and he would now bear a very different weight.
On the other side of the world, in Perth’s deepest suburbs, I was watching closely. I was 10 years old and my room was plastered with the posters of the NBA’s wizards: Magic, Bird, Jordan. If curfew had called me from the street’s hoops, then I was likely shooting Styrofoam balls into the plastic ring stuck above my wardrobe.
I was watching closely – in as much as a ’90s child could “watch” news events closely – because just months earlier an older neighbour had coerced me into sexual acts that both baffled and nauseated me and that had convinced me I was now infected with AIDS.
This feeling was held intensely. My blood was poison; my sweat toxic. I carried death inside me and militated against my family’s infection by drinking water from the tap directly. I tended to my own cuts. I washed my own bowls and cutlery, lest they be returned to the cupboard insufficiently cleansed.
But my corruption wasn’t exclusively physical: I was morally compromised, too. I understood what happened to have been filthy and transgressive and, via some vague but fundamental law of humanity, was now irrevocably filthy and transgressive myself. I wore shame like a heavy coat.
I had a ripe imagination, a few steps removed from reality, but still fed by it. About this time, I established an investigative agency – inspired by the juvenile detective novels I was reading but also by the petty crime pieces in the local newspaper and the memoirs of former FBI undercover agents I borrowed from the library. I was itchy for cases and called a restaurant, whose front window the local paper had reported as being recently smashed by a vandal, to inquire about the type of hammer they’d found. Upon hearing an obviously prepubescent child represent himself as a detective, they laughed and hung up.
With the same passionate naivety, I wrote poems about the dangers of acid rain and excessive whaling – and while my knowledge was exaggerated, and my righteousness performative, my imagination was still being fed by the wider world as I received it.
And so too my mistaken belief that I had AIDS, would likely die and probably deserved it. A child’s imagination is made of highly absorbent and refractive materials. Like most children, I was sensitive, perceptive and profoundly ignorant, and with my clumsy antennae I silently absorbed and translated the era’s pronounced homophobia and fear of AIDS.
That fear and homophobia seemed mixed with the very air I breathed and in the playground I heard excited and faux-knowing talk from older kids of Magic being a “poofter”. Only many years later would I realise the snide rumours of his sexuality weren’t unique to schoolyards but also once circulated amongst his peers.
I had nightmares. I dreamt of the Grim Reaper, who a few years earlier I’d watched roll bowling balls down an alley towards his victims in one of Australia’s most infamous TV commercials. In my dreams, he was a shadow. I woke in sweat. I said nothing.
I prepared for death in silent and sentimental ways, mostly by being nicer to my siblings. It’s a peculiar thing to prepare to die as a child, not really ever having known life. It might be that a part of me, somewhere in that porous and stupidly sensitive mind, understood that I wasn’t dying but instead enjoyed the melodramatic rituals that followed from believing I was. Perhaps. But my prevailing memory is of anxiety and shame.
Anyway, for a time, I had a strange buddy in Magic Johnson – this distant hero who went on smilingly telling the world he would be fine, that he was a fighter, that no one should be ashamed.
Magic made several comebacks. Months after his announcement, fans voted him into the 1992 NBA All-Star game – he led all scoring, with 25 points, and was awarded the game’s MVP. Later that year, Magic was selected for the fabled US Dream Team – the first United States Olympic squad to be comprised of professionals. They won the gold medal easily, winning all eight games by an average of 44 points.
Buoyed, Magic planned to return to the Lakers the next season. But he had overestimated the goodwill and support of peers. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone was especially vocal in his objection to Magic returning, and Johnson yielded.
Until 1996. It was then the Lakers re-signed him – mid-season and at the age of 36 – to a contract limited to the remainder of the calendar. Magic wanted this bad. He’d sold his 5 per cent stake in the team, as obliged by league rules, and, for the first time in a long while, started on the bench. And then, when he played, he was no longer point guard – the marshal dictating flow – but a power forward. But, no matter: press credentials were hard to come by to witness Magic’s return. Such was the demand, Hollywood’s celebrities were politely declined. Jack Nicholson, however, had courtside seats. They were never in doubt.
Magic’s arms were bigger; so was the rest of him. But that smile was still there. And when he sunk a basket on his home court, it was if the Lakers had just won another championship. His return game was against the Golden State Warriors. In a winning team, Magic almost had a triple-double: 19 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds. Two days later, he told Sports Illustrated: “I was just so nervous. That whole night before, I couldn’t sleep. I think I got maybe two hours. You know, when you look at the clock and you think you’ve been sleeping for hours, and you’ve only been asleep for 10 minutes?”
The next game was against Michael Jordan’s Bulls – the pre-eminent team, but also the source of something unthinkable then: just 12 months before, both Magic and Jordan were retired.
The Lakers received a bath. So did Magic, out-muscled by the Bulls’ power forward, Dennis Rodman, who pulled an astonishing 23 rebounds that game. “Who cares if he’s got HIV, measles, cancer, whatever,” Rodman said after the game. “I’m going to slam him anyway, and anybody who’s got any balls will do the same thing.”
Magic’s comeback would last 36 games. The Lakers made the playoffs that year, but went out in the first round. The Bulls went on, with relative ease, to win the championship.
Magic’s diagnosis was not, obviously, a death sentence. He would continue to flourish, with his famous optimism, game-changing retroviral drugs and successful investments. He would become a billionaire and remain a smiling prince in the American dream.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 11, 2023 as "It’s a kind of Magic".
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