Contrary to popular belief, only some moments truly transcend sports and shake the world. Great plays or broken records might resonate with fans, but there are usually only a handful of situations that can define a decade. We like to think that athletes do things that can change the world, but very few do.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s November 7th, 1991 announcement that he was HIV positive was one of those moments.
Johnson, one of the game’s great players, just a few months removed from a tough loss in the NBA Finals to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, wasted no time in the conference, getting right to the point.
“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers. Today.”
Johnson made sure to point out he did not have AIDS and that his wife had tested negative. “I plan to go on living for a long time,” Johnson added.
One of the defining stories of the decade prior, countless people had died from AIDS, and eight to 10 million people were thought to be living with the disease at the start of the Nineties, many of those people were men who had sex with men. Ignored by President Ronald Reagan, HIV and AIDS numbers soared without proper funding and acknowledgement for the bulk of the eighties. While there had been some high profile cases and deaths – the actor (and one-time friend of the Reagans) Rock Hudson, in 1985, as well as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury just a few weeks after Johnson’s announcement – the disease was socially considered to be confined mostly to the gay community, drug users and people who received blood transfusions.
Magic Johnson proved that narrative to be false. Anybody could get the HIV virus. And 25 years to the date, Johnson, still alive and thriving, has also shown that people can live with the disease if treated. It didn’t end the HIV and AIDS epidemic that claimed so many lives, but it did put it in a different light, one that many Americans needed to see it in.