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.