It was 24 years ago today when Magic Johnson played in the 1992 All-Star Game. It was his 11th-consecutive appearance in the event, but it was more significant than all the others combined. Months earlier, he had retired abruptly before the start of the season because he had been diagnosed with HIV. At the time, HIV and AIDS inspired fear and prejudice in large swaths of the American populace, and then it ended the career of one of the country’s most popular athletes.
Magic acknowledging his condition went a long way toward dispelling the notion that only homosexuals could contract the disease, but his appearance in the game did even more — it destroyed the idea that a person with HIV was a dead person walking or dangerous to others (both extremely dehumanizing viewpoints that were nonetheless common at the time). Johnson appeared on ESPN today to reflect on that moment with Hannah Storm, and explain what it meant to him.
“I needed something at that time. You know, when the game that you love is taken away from you — and you’ve been playing it since you were a little boy — now all of a sudden I can’t play it any longer. I needed a pick-me-up; I needed something good to happen in my life to say, ‘Earvin, you’re gonna live for a long time, and you’re gonna beat this.’ And that game did that for me.”
And it’s also important to remember that Magic didn’t just play as a charity case. He showed vintage move after vintage move, draining an off-balance three with time running down to bring home the MVP trophy.
For all the good Johnson’s appearance did, much of it would have been undone had he been a sweaty, out-of-shape mess. Fairly or unfairly, his virus would have been blamed for sapping what made him special, and the narrative of overcoming adversity would have been weakened. Instead, Magic went out there and showed that HIV or no HIV, he was still Magic, and that if you had HIV, you could still be you.
Now, almost a quarter-century later, HIV and AIDS are far away from most of the American public’s consciousness, which is actually good news. It’s no longer a terrifying specter hanging over the heads of Americans — though it still is a massive problem in sub-sahara Africa, it needs to be said — and Magic is no longer simply a disease survivor; he’s one of the most successful post-athlete businessmen ever. No ending could be happier.