On this day 25 years ago, Earvin “Magic” Johnson retired from professional basketball at age 32 because he had contracted the HIV virus. In a brief-but-emotional press conference, the three-time MVP, joined by his wife and college sweetheart, Cookie Johnson, told the world: “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers, today.”
His wife, he continued, was “fine” and “negative,” as was their unborn child. Magic and Cookie had only been married for 45 days before that unforgettable announcement, but as they had several times in their “roller coaster” relationship that began at Michigan State, they worked through it and celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last month with the release of her memoir. But then, everything about this press conference has become cause for celebration, because the public believed at that time that HIV meant AIDS, and that AIDS was a death sentence.
As a celebrity with HIV, Magic inherited the exceptional responsibility of being the face of something so terrifying and stigmatized. On that day, though, he made two promises. First, to the media: “I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys, like I always have.”
Second, to the nameless people fighting a costly losing battle with HIV:
I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus because I want people — young people to realize that they can practice safe sex. And you know sometimes you’re a little naive about it and you think it could never happen to you. You only thought it could happen to, you know, other people and so on and all. And it has happened, but I’m going to deal with it and my life will go on.
Magic was immediately praised by the medical community for his bravery, as Lakers team physician Michael Mellman told the Los Angeles Times:
“What we have witnessed is a courageous act by a very special person. He is not compelled by any legal description or legal requirement to disclose what he has disclosed today.
“He is not a person who is invisible. Because of his presence and potential impact on society, with a situation that is not only serious but from which we are all at risk, I think he should not only be commended but held as a modern-day hero.
“This is a very, very special person and a very special admission.”