20 years later, Magic goes on living

By Harvey Araton

The New York Times

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 12:22 a.m. MDT

So where were you on the night of Nov. 7, 1991? I was in Madison Square Garden, watching Pat Riley bring his Knicks and the visiting Orlando Magic together to say a pregame prayer for Magic Johnson on the day Johnson revealed that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

That was 20 years ago Monday, and if your first thought is, 'Oh, my, how time flies,' consider the alternative likelihood that Johnson has relished every single day since he looked into television cameras broadcasting live around the world and said, "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today."

Yes, the verb was mangled, but that was part of Johnson's charm, his standing — then and now — as the most positive force of energy to ever hit professional basketball. He was 32 and tried to be upbeat that day, flashing the trademark smile that Johnson's friends and colleagues feared they wouldn't see for long.

"All of us thought it was a death sentence," Riley said.

That morning, Riley was in his office at the Knicks' Westchester County training base when Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent, called with the news. Riley hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, in disbelief.

Only days earlier, he had received a letter from Johnson, whom he had coached to four championships as part of the Showtime Lakers, wishing him luck as he embarked on his first season with the Knicks. Riley adored Johnson and usually addressed him by his given name, Earvin.

"We do not want to eulogize him," Riley said that night. "More than anything now, he needs our love and support."

But the story quickly became more complex, more accusatory, through a labyrinth of emotions and opinions related to ignorance about the disease and Johnson's sexual habits, among other things.

He was welcomed back to play in the NBA All-Star Game that winter and for the U.S. Olympic team the next summer in Barcelona, Spain. Based on those experiences, Johnson announced a comeback for the 1992-93 season but abandoned it after Karl Malone's comments to me for an article in The New York Times unearthed some players' fears of competing against him.

Johnson, in turn, wanted to become a spokesman for HIV awareness but spoke clumsily, saying he had been assured by doctors that all he had to do to survive was to eat well, exercise and maintain a positive attitude. Lost in the message was that Johnson had access to the finest doctors and the expensive cocktail of drugs that have extended his life, unlike millions who didn't and still don't.

Recently, Johnson became a grandfather, but his greatest achievement of all may have been his decision on Nov. 7, 1991, to tell the world what he had and to deal with the fallout while putting a public face on the disease for the past 20 years. And counting.

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