Still stunning the world 10 years later

Magic Johnson isn't supposed to be alive today. It turns out that the death sentence he was given a decade ago has given him a renewed lease on life.

Originally Published: November 7, 2001
By Tom Friend | ESPN The Magazine

He has made it to 42. He has made it to 260 pounds. He has made it to CEO. He has made it to father-of-three. He has made it to big-brother-of-Kobe. He has made it to seven rings. He has made it to 10 years.

"A lot of people thought I would be dead," Earvin "Magic" Johnson says of his anniversary.

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson's retirement 10 years ago stunned the world, but it likely hit closest to home for so many athletes who have enjoyed the spoils of their success.
They thought he had the plague, but today he has a pickup basketball game to play. They treated him like a leper, but today they watch movies in his theatre. They thought he would whither away, but today his shirt size is XXXL.

They remember Nov. 7, 1991, like it was last Thursday. They remember where they were when they heard that sickening phrase: HIV. They remember weeping. They remember rationalizing. They remember thinking, "He must be gay." They remember thinking he'll be gone in two years. They remember thinking he'll shrivel up and deteriorate. Right in front of them. And they know who they are.

Michael Jordan. Larry Bird. Pat Riley. Arsenio Hall. Isiah Thomas.

All of us.

Magic had gotten a phone call on Oct. 24, 1991 in his Salt Lake City hotel room. It was Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers team physician, and the conversation went like this:

"Earvin, you must come home right now and see me."

"But I've got a game here."

"You must come home."

"What's going on? Tell me."

"Not over the phone. Come home."

They sat in Mellman's office the next day, and the doctor explained to Magic that he had the virus that causes AIDS. He didn't crumble. Not even after a second test confirmed that news. He was a newlywed, and his wife was pregnant. People assumed that she'd have it, and that their infant would have it. But Earvin (Magic) Johnson told the people close to him to shut up. To stop being morbid.

"I'll live," he told them. "I won't die. And if I do die, I'll be happy. I've had a great life."

They believed him, because he MADE them believe him. But either way, the news was going to get out, and he had calls to make first. Calls to Jordan, Bird, Riley, Hall, Thomas. He was going to call them on Nov. 7, 1991, to prepare them for it, and then announce his news to the world the following day. But, on the morning of the 7th, while Los Angeles Lakers GM Jerry West sat crying in his office, a radio station reporter phoned the team to confirm a strong rumor. A rumor that Johnson had HIV.

They were going to go on the air with it, but the Lakers PR man, John Black, asked them to wait an hour. Magic was contacted, and he agreed to move the press conference up a day _ to Nov. 7, at 3 p.m. It was 10 a.m. at the time, which meant Magic Johnson had five hours to prepare, five hours to get his wife and his family and his speech together. He wouldn't have time to phone Jordan, Bird, Riley, Hall or Thomas. So his agent, Lon Rosen, called them for him.

Riley broke down. He was in New York, running the Knicks, but he said he wouldn't coach that night.

"You've got to coach!" Rosen said. "It'll break Magic's heart if you don't."

So Pat Riley, convinced Magic would die soon, delayed the game's opening tip so he could read 19,000 people the Lord's Prayer.

Thomas broke down, too, on the side of a road in Detroit. He'd been in his car when Rosen found him, and he couldn't steer the wheel once he heard the news.

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson -- on Arsenio Hall Show in first public appearance since announcing his retirement
Hall had a show to do that night, but the hell with that, he said. He told everyone he absolutely couldn't go on. But Rosen told him exactly what he'd told Riley, that Magic would faint if he heard the show was canceled. Magic, in fact, promised to do Arsenio's show the next night. To cheer up Arsenio. To cheer up the country.

Bird was the most proactive of all of them. He told Rosen he wanted to phone Magic. Like, right then. And so he did, and Magic answered the phone and told his nemesis-turned-friend not to worry, that he still wanted a piece of him.

And then there was Michael. Jordan had grown up a stupendous fan of Magic's and had always idolized him. Rosen called the Bulls and found their P.R. man, Tim Hallam.

"I've got to talk to Michael," Rosen said.

"He's in practice."

"Trust me when I say, pull him out of practice."

"But&"

"Trust me."

They pulled Jordan out, and he was given the news. Michael Jordan was incredulous for an instant, but then asked the same question all of us were asking on Nov. 7, 1991.

"Is he gonna die?"

Soul searching
The answer, 10 years later to the day, is still the same: Not yet.

In fact, there are a lot of people close to Magic who are convinced he will not die of complications from AIDS. That he will be hit by a bus first. That he'll outlive us all.

AIDS VICTIMS IN SPORTS
Jerry Smith
Smith, 43, a tight end with the Washington Redskins from 1965-77, died of complications related to AIDS on Oct. 15, 1986.

Thomas Waddell
Waddell, 49, a decathlete who competed for the United States in the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, died of complications related to AIDS on July 11, 1987.

Esteban DeJesus
DeJesus, 37, former WBC lightweight boxing champion who contracted HIV while in prison during the early 1980s, died on May 12, 1989.

Tim Richmond
Richmond, 34, a stock car driver, died of complications caused by AIDS on Aug. 16, 1989.

Alan Wiggins
Wiggins, 32, who played with the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles, died of complications caused by AIDS on Jan. 6, 1991.

Arthur Ashe
Ashe, 49, a tennis champion and human rights crusader, died of AIDS-related pneumonia on Feb. 6, 1993.

Chad Kinch
Kinch, 35, who played in the Final Four for North Carolina-Charlotte in 1977 and was a No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, died of complications from AIDS on April 3, 1994.

John Curry
Curry, 44, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist and world champion figure skater whose artistry on ice revolutionized figure skating, died from an AIDS-related illness on April 15, 1994.

Glenn Burke
Burke, 42, a Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics outfielder who says he was blackballed from baseball for being gay, died of AIDS-related complications on May 30, 1995.

Bill Goldsworthy
Goldsworthy, 51, a 14-year NHL veteran and one of the original Minnesota North Stars, died of complications from AIDS on March 29, 1996.

Compiled from wire reports

It is a testament -- and even the renowned AIDS expert, Dr. David Ho agrees -- to the fact that Johnson has a sublime, upbeat attitude. He makes certain to eat right and to sleep right, and, of course, he has always had access, from day 1, to the most advanced medical treatment and most knowledgeable physicians in the world. His medication has kept his T-cell count high, and, as a result, his hematology tests show little or no trace of the virus.

But make no mistake -- he is still infected. And, for the last 10 years, he's been reminded of this nearly every day.

In the initial month following the announcement, he and his wife, Cookie, took a vacation to Maui, and noticed a National Enquirer photographer hiding in the bushes. In the ensuing months, he began to hear "Are you okay?" a lot, from total strangers. He appreciated it, but, at the same time, he was feeling frozen out by others. He saw people whispering, and he saw a number of his NBA peers turn reticent. They were reluctant to embrace him and cautious about playing against him. And it stung.

He would come to the Forum hours before each Lakers home game, just so he could shoot around and stay close to it all, but rarely would any players agree to take him on one-on-one. His sense was that they were afraid he would sweat all over them -- not that it was their fault. By and large, most athletes -- and people, in general -- were uneducated about the virus that causes AIDS in 1991, and Johnson had likewise been naive. On the day of his Nov. 7 news conference, he had needed to be coached by doctors and by friends on what to say. He had not known the difference between HIV and AIDS, and, 15 minutes before the news conference, when one of his confidants asked him if he was ready, Johnson said, "Yes. I'm going to say I have AIDS."

He had to be pulled into a side room and told to say "HIV" instead, and it became Dr. Ho's job to continue to educate him. It was also Ho who encouraged him to keep shooting around at the Forum.

Those first few months were a lonely time for him. With no players joining seriously into his workouts, he said he felt, for the first time, "diseased."

Until Rony Seikaly sort of saved his soul.

Seikaly, at the time a young player with the Miami Heat, had been in Los Angeles recuperating from an injury, and he asked Johnson if he could shoot with him.

They began playing a contest of one-on-one, full boar, and although Johnson scored at will, he was thrilled that Seikaly banged him and bumped him and sweated on him -- and that Seikaly let Johnson reciprocate. In the words of Johnson's confidants, "It meant so much to Earvin that Rony wasn't afraid to play with him."

That competitive day with Seikaly was one of his favorite afternoons.

Times to move on
In those initial months, Johnson also would hear the sophomoric whispers about his sexuality. Those who doubted HIV could be contracted heterosexually were convinced he had obtained the virus from another man, and Johnson told friends he knew exactly what people were saying. He didn't care about their gossip, because, to him, it missed the point.

He began to think he'd been put on this Earth for a purpose, and that one of these purposes was to be the embodiment of HIV and AIDS. That he was here to tell his story and to save lives. That's how he saw it, and that is why he began to tell of his sexual escapades with women.

He was criticized, of course, for doing so, for saying on national television that he had had harems of women. But he was convinced that heterosexuals needed to know that they, too, were at risk, and so he put his stories out there.

Maui, for instance, had always been his place to see multiple women in the off-season, but there were also the tawdry nights he would spend during the season. According to several of his confidants, it was common for him to have a middle-man locate a young woman in the stands during a game, bring her to a room adjacent to the Lakers' locker room, and leave her there. When the game was over, Johnson would join her in that room, alone. He would then shower and do his post-game interviews. This is why, on game nights, he was always last to leave.

He never said he was proud of this promiscuity, although it seemed to look that way, but he had a lethal virus to show for it now, and he had to come to terms with a number of his life-changes. One, being basketball.

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson -- A trainer bandages a scratch on Magic's arm during an exhibition game in Chapel Hill, N.C.
He wanted to come back and play, and he actually did return to the Lakers for a training camp before the sordid comments of Karl Malone, who thought Magic might infect him, led him to back away.

So he bought a portion of the Lakers instead, and, before long, he was named the team's late-season coach. The players ignored him and were unrepentant, and it was clear they were too immature to listen to a man with five championship rings. So he did what any smart man would do: he signed himself up.

His jersey was already on the Forum wall, retired, but he announced he was coming back to play anyway.

"Good thing they put it up there in velcro," his old teammate Byron Scott said.

By this time, three years after telling the world about his virus, it was a more educated world. The Karl Malones of the NBA were not as queasy about Johnson's blood and sweat, and he returned as a power forward, rather than a point guard. But it was a hasty move. He and Nick Van Exel both wanted the ball, but could not co-exist. A frustrating playoff loss to the Houston Rockets ended it once and for all, and the NBA was out of Johnson's system.

But basketball out of his system? Never. The "Magic Johnson All Stars" toured the world, and what he found out was that he had brand power. Whether it was the Philippines or South Africa, he was recognized and applauded on the most obscure boulevards. He realized he was becoming more spokesman than basketball hero, and never did he realize this more than when tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced that he had AIDS.

When Ashe was forced to go public with the news, he telephoned Johnson and Rosen for help on his speech. Johnson admired Ashe so much, and was honored to be a voice of reason for him. Johnson was also there when a young, volatile boxer named Tommy Morrison told the world he had HIV, although Morrison later disparaged Johnson, saying the medication Johnson took was "poison." Morrison, for years, refused to take these drugs, even though Johnson commanded him to do so, and Morrison's T-cell count then dwindled below a dangerous 10. Only now is the count reportedly back up, and the reason is that Morrison finally takes the drugs Johnson's doctors recommended.

And as the year's passed, Johnson -- who was supposed to be fragile -- remained uniquely robust. He still partook in the best summer pickup basketball games in the country, on the campus of UCLA. And when those games were over, Johnson got back to his new love: business.

He had a knack for it. He was host of a variety television show and failed miserably, and he had tried to promote boxers such as Mike Tyson, but couldn't get a nibble. But business -- big business -- was different. It was his forte. First and foremost, he was intent on investing in the inner city, intent on putting movie theatres and coffee houses where nobody dared put them: in places such as South Central L.A.

Soon, "Magic Johnson Theatres" were being constructed, and he was hands-on with everything. For instance, some of the South Central gang members went to the construction site one day, asking to help, and were shooed away. So they were going to picket the theatres. Johnson came to see them, and said, "You didn't apply for the job. I'm gonna hire the best people available for the work. But you've got to apply for the job. These other people applied." So several of the gang members got a pen and applied, and helped build the place.

Now it thrives, but only because Johnson knows what the people in South Central want. He took a walk through the theatre one early day, with a few of his white friends, and he changed the concession menu. He said, "We got to get Strawberry soda on the menu. My people like flavors. We eat hot dogs and nachos." He was serious, and they changed the menu. He'd go to movies there himself, all the time.

But he wasn't done. He bought 25 Starbuck's coffee franchises and put them next to his theatres, and they thrived. And he just bought the popular 47-store "Fatburger" chain, and he'll keep expanding even though the economy is suffering.

"People don't stop eating, and they don't stop drinking coffee," he says.

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss -- celebrating after the Lakers won the 1980 NBA championship.
And one of his other businesses happens to be the Lakers. Still. He remains a part owner of the team, and when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were feuding last year, Magic and Jerry West helped rein them in. Kobe considers him a brother, and, two championships later, Magic Johnson has a ring for seven fingers.

He has his three children, too -- one from a previous relationship, one with Cookie and an adopted daughter, and he dotes on them all. But more than that, a city dotes on him. There are rumblings that he will run for mayor of Los Angeles in the next election year, and the moral of that story is that he'd rather coach a metropolitan area than a basketball team. That's how far he's come in 10 years. That's how far away we've come from Nov. 7, 1991.

In fact, just this summer, Earvin (Magic) Johnson went to see a movie at his own theatre and was mobbed by dozens of 8-year-olds. An associate saw it and poked Johnson on the shoulder.

"Earvin, you know what's amazing? Not one of these kids has ever seen you play -- and they know you. They're in awe of you."

Makes for a nice decade.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine

ALSO SEE