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Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 at 11:33 am  |  12 responses

One For The Money

Two decades ago in Orlando, a retired Magic Johnson put on an All-Star performance that will be remembered forever.

Originally published in SLAM 156

by Thomas Golianopoulos

In late-October, 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson learned he was HIV-positive. Then, on November 7, after his original tests were confirmed, he held a somber press conference at the old Great Western Forum and announced his retirement from the NBA. It was surreal and stunning—Mitch Kupchak, then-Lakers assistant General Manager, likened it to the Kennedy assassination. Magic Johnson, one of the greatest, most beloved and incandescent players in NBA history, had contracted a disease that was thought to carry a death sentence.

At the time, I was a 12-year-old kid living in Queens and was doing homework when my mother called me into the TV room. I remember the sound of Magic’s voice. I remember the spattering and clicking of cameras. And I remember running into the next room to cry afterward, because I knew what fate awaited him. Just a few months earlier, my next door neighbor’s son had died from AIDS. It was quick and brutal.

Upon retirement, Johnson dove into activism and founded the Magic Johnson Foundation. He missed basketball, though, and it was soon announced he’d return to the court at the 42nd All-Star Game, to be played in Orlando, in February, mere months after his stunning press conference. No one would ever forget it.

Sam Perkins (Teammate, Los Angeles Lakers): We cut practice short and Coach Mike Dunleavy told us to bring it in. We didn’t even finish our free throws. He told us to put the balls down, go home and then meet back at the Forum. He didn’t explain anything. We didn’t know what was going on.

Magic Johnson [from November 7, ’91]: Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.

Perkins: After he made that statement, me, Tony Smith and some of the guys went to eat at the marina. It was a nice sunny day. I swear, that sunny day turned cloudy. It was dark and gloomy.

Kevin Willis (All-Star, Atlanta Hawks): It put a cloud over everything for the first half of the season. Everybody started to look at one another and say, “Man, we have to straighten up our act. We have girlfriends here, a girlfriend there and we hang out in different cities, go to clubs and meet people.” We were like, “Man, whoever is out there spreading themselves real thin, we got to put the brakes on.”

Despite not playing in a single regular-season game, Johnson was still on the All-Star ballot. Of course, he was a leading vote-getter. NBA Commissioner David Stern and many supported his return, but there was also a vocal contingent of owners and players that didn’t.

David Stern (NBA Commissioner) [from the 2009 book, When the Game Was Ours]: We were under fire from many of our own people, but the public didn’t need to know that.

Charles Barkley (All-Star, Philadelphia 76ers) [from February, ’92]: I have thought about picking up the phone, calling Magic and telling him maybe he shouldn’t play. It’s his decision, but the All-Star Game is a reward for players who’ve had a great first half of the season. I feel bad for the young guys because that should be their reward. It’s going to be a media circus, and that’s unfortunate.

Clyde Drexler (All-Star, Portland Trail Blazers): Obviously we loved Magic, but a lot of guys were thinking or saying, “Magic’s had a great run. Let the guys who deserve to be in the game be in the game.” Some guys came out and said, “I don’t want to play against the guy if I have a chance to get sick.” I’m not going to name any names. I was the first person to say, There is a lot of ignorance around here. Talk to any doctor, and they will tell you that you can’t contract it that way.

Isiah Thomas (All-Star, Detroit Pistons): I remember Karl Malone being very vocal and a couple of other All-Stars. At that time, I was the president of the Player’s Association so I called a special meeting where I told everyone that not only was Magic going to play, but also we were all going to line up and embrace him. At the time, my brother was HIV-positive, so I was very well aware of the disease. I understood that it couldn’t be transmitted through touching.

Willis: I wasn’t fearful. You run into people every day that have the disease and you don’t know it. Some guys were fearful of hitting him and some freak accident happening and then all of a sudden blood is everywhere. That was some players’ fear, but an All-Star Game is not as intense as a regular-season game.

Drexler: Tim Hardaway had to not take the starting position because Magic started, and that was one of the few times [Tim] had to start. Magic had started many times.

Tim Hardaway (All-Star, Golden State Warriors): I was announced a starter but knew that Magic wanted to play. I wanted everyone to understand that that guy set the stage for us. I’m quite sure that if he was playing with the Lakers, he would have been starting. I relinquished my starting position and let him have it. It was totally my decision. Nobody forced me to do it. Nobody asked me to do it. We shouldn’t act like I did something really big. When you had respect for somebody and grew up with that respect…It’s what I felt in my heart that needed to be done. He deserved that spot. That was his spot.

Jeff Hornacek (All-Star, Phoenix Suns): It was a class act by Tim that he realized that we were all in the NBA making lots of money because of Magic and Larry [Bird]. For Tim to defer to Magic, that’s huge. That’s a very unselfish move by a player.

Donnie Nelson (Assistant Coach, Golden State Warriors): Timmy and my dad (All-Star Head Coach Don Nelson) talked about it. Timmy felt strongly about it. AIDS still had a lot of question marks around it and we didn’t have the same educational viewpoint that we have today. Timmy didn’t bat an eye. He knew it was the right thing to do and he gave up his starting spot. We all knew we had a very special opportunity to use the vehicle of sport to educate folks on AIDS.

Mark Price (All-Star, Cleveland Cavaliers): I think all the players were supportive of Magic coming back. I don’t recall much resentment.

Johnson [from February, 1992]: I have to be out there for myself but for others, too. Whether they have a disease or they are handicapped they have to keep on living. That’s what I’m doing—I’m living.

During his time away from the NBA, Johnson stayed in shape, playing pickup hoops at the Sports Club in Los Angeles. Still, no one knew what to expect at his first practice with the All-Star team on the day before the game.

Nelson: [Magic] showed up in great shape and within the first five minutes of practice we knew who the leader was.

Hardaway: We practiced on Saturday and people were like, Wow this is a fun practice. We practiced the way we practiced at Golden State: 3-on-2, 2-on-1, 4-on-3, so it was a lot of fun. People were like, Y’all practice like this every day?

Hornacek: Nellie’s strategy was to play like the Golden State Warriors at that time, which was run-and-gun and move the ball.

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  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    Another reason why Magic is the Greatest Player who has Ever Lived…

  • martey

    i was twelve also. incredible game. one of my most memorable also. script reads like a movie. great read down memory lane. thanks

  • MikeC.

    We all missed out on a good 5 years of Magic’s prime. As a basketball fan, that’s a sad thing. As a person, I’m just glad Magic has shown the world that with diet, exercise and access to doctors and medicine, HIV isn’t an automatic death sentence. He’s a terrible announcer, but his smile is magnetic.

  • Justin G.

    There goes Philosopher with the crazy talk again. For hopefully the last time…If Magic can admit that MJ was a better player than him, why can’t you? Anyway, that was one of the great all star games and the way it ended was absolutely phenomenal. First the Magic/Isiah one on one, then the Magic/Jordan one on one, and the finish with his third straight 3 pointer. I believe there was still about 14 seconds left on the clock and the players just stopped, all understanding that it was the perfect way for the game to end.

  • Ka

    Im old enough to remember this game. I was in my teens n this was my 1st time watching the asg. Even without the storyline this was a great great game. Guys came out sharp n just youtube this game, there were hella crazy highlights (n they were off ball movement n just guys chucking it) watch this game (more so than barcelona) to understand how the dream team was realy that: a dream team.

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    @JustinG:
    The only reason Magic says anyone is better than him is because, it is good for business. It is bad for business saying that he’s better than someone.
    Do we ever hear Jordan saying that he is better than Magic?
    No.
    Do you know why?
    Because, it is bad for business.

  • TBEASTIN

    im coming away from this article with the thoughts that Clyde Drexler is a hater.lol.

  • Justin G.

    Ohhh right, I forgot about your little “bad for business” excuses. So, because he said it in his autobiography do you think he sold less copies? It’s not bad for business to admit somebody is better than you at something. You think he’s somehow going to lose money if he comes out and says he’s the best? That’s absurdity at it’s highest level. God, you can be so ignorant sometimes. Magic’s businesses aren’t predicated on him claiming he’s something he’s not. Everyone (except for you apparently) that’s ever watched the two play knows who the best of all time is.

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    @JustinG:
    We hear Lord Thomas III lament about how if he were taller, he would have been better than Jordan. He also reminds anyone who will listen that HE is the one that baptised Jordan. How he used to kick his ass regularly.
    He also goes in about how he kicked Earvin’s ass in The Finals, and so on. He goes in on how he kicked Bird’s rear side as well.
    All of those players that I mentioned were on the original Dream Team. Isiah was not.
    Not saying that Isiah’s statements are what kept him off the Greatest Team of All Times. But I ask you, did Isiah’s tirades about that help or hurt his cause? In your opinion?

  • http://slamonline.com The Philosopher

    Now, concerning Magic’s business.(es)
    One can argue that the movie theaters that Magic promotes is something that it is not. He’ll say that he is doing this, doing that for the better of a certain group of people when in reality, what he claims to be doing is not really happening. I mean, HE’S getting paid, but, what about what was promised?
    Now, it is arguable that Isiah lost some money by claiming that he is/would be better than someone. We don’t hear too many high profile personalities do such things.
    They just don’t. Only if they have something personal afainst someone. This is true.
    And, we all know that Isiah has some enemies. Partly because, of what he comes out and says publicly.

  • Pingback: Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and the 1991 NBA All-Star Game « PistonPowered

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