Sometimes in the African American culture, issues not directly involving our race have a tendency to often times fall on deaf ears. The reason stems from a long list of factors; the most pertinent being centuries of the “take care of our own” mentality being forced on us by societal pressures. Credit this mentality as to why HIV and AIDS never truly hit home until the ’90s. During this decade, three of Black America’s most beloved names – Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright – contracted the disease leaving many forced to grasp and accept the true magnitude of the ailment.
It was Magic’s, though, whose admission still remains one of sports’ defining moments and everyone of age probably remembers where they were when he made the announcement via press conference on November 7, 1991. Personally, I was only five at the time, just starting elementary school and outside of Michael Jordan, my knowledge of basketball paled in comparison to when nap time was. With stories of this magnitude, the best aspect is having the solace of knowing several historical accounts exist. Magic’s is one. Hell, possibly your own is another. Then-Lakers head trainer Gary Vitti, however, had the most intimate and emotional take.
MT: Wow. OK, let’s get back to how you were dealing with the issue before it became public:
Vitti: We went those two weeks, and eventually Magic decided to retire and we had to make an announcement. The team was flying out on a Thursday, and Lon called me on Tuesday to share that Magic wanted me to get a room at the airport, get all the players and coaches in the room when they show up for the flight, and he was going to address the team and tell them the news. We’re all going to get on a plane and fly to wherever we’re flying to, and Magic was going to go back to the Forum for a press conference to tell the world.
We were supposed be on a plane so the players weren’t going to be approached by the press right after the found out. That was the plan. But when we were at practice on Wednesday, I got a call from Jerry West. He said, ‘Get everybody out of practice right now. There’s been a leak, and the press is all on its way to Loyola. Get the players out of there, tell them not to talk to anybody or say a word. I don’t care what they have to do, tell them to cancel their plans and get to the Forum.’ So that’s what I did. I ran into the gym, called Mike Dunleavy over, and told him what was going on. The players still didn’t know, and some said that they had plans. I said, ‘Cancel your plans. Today is going to change your life.’ And it did. It changed all of our lives. So everybody gets in cars and leaves, and you can see as we’re driving out, a parade of media members are driving in. We’re passing them.
Vitti’s moving recollection of the day sports intersected with real life is nothing short of a must read if you’re a sports geek like yours truly. I’ve joked around about Magic throughout the years saying everything from he never had HIV in the first place to him just having a really bad cold he couldn’t shake. All that said, the magnitude of the situation still rings true. Johnson and doctors detected his case early and thanks to his financial backing, he was able to fight the disease. Sometimes – and I could be wrong – there’s this feeling that people hold that against Magic; like he shouldn’t have that luxury so many others affected with HIV/AIDS live and die with everyday. On one accord, the sentiment is understandable because no one should die from a sickness that has the ability to be treated. On the other, Magic’s perceived public persecution is asinine.
Since November 7, 1991, the most recognizable face of those “Showtime” Lakers teams has been an advocate for early testing, knowledge, donating to research and the importance of safe sex. As a person of his stature and importance, what more is there left for him to do? There will be countless outlets covering the 20-year anniversary since Magic shook the world, as it should. With only a handful of other circumstances, September 11 – and the way sports played a role in helping heal the country that year – and how Len Bias’ death was a catalyst in exposing the epidemic of crack cocaine, it is this admission which arguably ranks as the most humanizing moment in sports of the past 25 years. This wasn’t a backup center or role player or even assistant coach coming out to the world that he was battling a disease which is still stereotyped as a death sentence. This was Magic Johnson. And while a role player’s life is no less valuable than Magic’s, this was one of the greatest athletes of all time and largely considered one of the top three players to ever play the game of basketball. And keep in mind, his career was cut short.
History says we’ll all remember Earvin for his trademark smile, the way he revolutionized the point guard position (and is still doing so) and helping transform the Lakers into pop culture icons. Giving a face to the disease known simply as “the silent killer” will be his greatest contribution to the world. And that’s even more paramount than his playoff career average of 12.3 assists.
Bonus: Those interested in the audio account of Vitti’s nostalgic glance in time should click here. Trust me, it’s well worth the trip.