Twenty years ago, NBA great Magic Johnson called his legendary press conference to announce he was retiring from basketball. I was a junior at Michigan State University, working at the student newspaper the State News. I remember we all huddled around a 20-inch newsroom black and white television on wheels to watch Johnson's announcement.
Then I remember hitting the streets on campus to get reaction.
While I don't have my reporter's notebooks from that time (this was the pre-Twitter era so we actually had to write stuff down on paper. Old school crowd sourcing). I do remember the mood amongst my fellow students. Somber, as if we were witnessing a man's funeral before he had died. In 1991, that's what we believed Johnson was heading for: sure death. Although he specified he didn't have AIDS ("I want to make it clear I do not have the AIDS disease. The HIV virus," said Johnson) those details were lost in the shock of the announcement. An HIV positive test was a precursor to contracting AIDS. This was an easy jump to make. We knew Magic Johnson wasn't going to be playing basketball anymore. We also believed he was going to die.
I remember asking questions about mortality. Does Magic's situation make you re-evaluate your own life? Will you be more careful? Johnson had advocated safe sex during his press conference that day, implying he had gotten the HIV virus through unprotected heterosexual intercourse. The rumors were flying: How do straight people get AIDS? Was he gay? He can't be a drug user, right? What I remember most is how little we all actually knew. I do recall how calm Magic was at the press conference. It was as if he knew something we didn't.
Johnson was a living legend in East Lansing, MI. A local kid (from Everett High School in Lansing, MI) who led Michigan State to a 1979 national championship before leaving for the bright lights and temptations of Hollywood. For this to happen to him of all people was impossible to comprehend. It kicked us right to the core of our belief structure regarding our athletic heros. You mean they are actually people with human frailties? Magic has AIDS? What's next, baseball players using steroids?
Two decades has given us perspective. As it turns out Magic was right when he said he was going to "live his life." Thanks to aggressive treatment, he never actually got full-blown AIDS, keeping the virus quarantined. He kept his promise of being a spokesperson for the disease, although just living has done plenty. He has done us Spartans proud by doing so much for the school and for inner city America. He is a man who has redefined himself away from basketball.
Twenty years ago, I don't think anyone would have thought that was possible.