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Scott Howard-Cooper

It's been 20 years since Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive.
Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty Images

Long into his fight with HIV, Magic continues to amaze

Posted Nov 8 2011 9:20AM

He could have lied.

He could have said the medical exam for the life-insurance policy detected a back problem that would cause a difficulty later in life if he continued with the wearing NBA life, or that a heart malady prompted the sudden retirement, or the purposely vague "family issue." He could have gone with family issue and been telling the truth in a sense and stayed silent on the specifics to all but the most trusted of confidants.

Magic Johnson, the master of the no-look pass, didn't give any real thought to the deception. He didn't pick privacy, friendships or restaurant reservations. He didn't flinch.

He stepped to the podium for the hastily-called press conference at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Nov. 7, 1991, and announced he had tested HIV-positive and that he was retiring from the Lakers.

The world changed 20 years ago today, not just in basketball terms.

The world.

Johnson was convinced the truth would have eventually come out had he tried to hide the reason for quitting at age 32. He was too famous and there was too much money to be made for anyone with access to medical records and insurance information. Mostly, though, he realized, almost on the spot, that he could make as much difference for an urgent societal issue as he could on the court.

Magic was very wrong, as we now know with the perspective of time.

He made more of a difference.

One of the all-time greats, who partnered with Michael Jordan and cross-country, cross-cultural foil Larry Bird to drive the league to unprecedented heights, later a businessman big enough to have hotels on the backstretch of the Monopoly board ... and his presence in the HIV/AIDS fight surpasses all.

Johnson and wife Cookie left the Forum that day immediately after the press conference of disbelief, cutting through a kitchen and out a side exit to the parking lot and the car for the drive home to Beverly Hills, but he walked out on no one. He embraced the role as the public face of fundraising and awareness. If he couldn't get the Celtics or Pistons in June, this would be the new challenge.

In the moment, Johnson was hurting more than he let on, even if he was the guy who kept everyone else's spirits up that day, from delivering the surreal news to Lakers teammates beforehand to delivering the news to a world in disbelief. The second test, the one that confirmed the virus initially detected as part of the routine exam for a life-insurance policy, had come back just the day before. He was a mega-star shoved from the game ahead of schedule while worried about the health of his baby and unborn son.

It was impossible at the time to avoid the sense that Johnson had just announced his own death sentence. Soon, restaurants called to request Magic not return. Some friends distanced themselves in a panic over how HIV spreads, particularly hurtful to such a people person. He could understand on some level how players might have a fear -- the open cuts and scratches, the contact -- but not that.

Undaunted, he went on the TV talk show of close friend Arsenio Hall to discuss the diagnosis. He started the Magic Johnson Foundation, dedicated to AIDS research. He wrote the autobiographical "My Life," published in 1992, that devoted a chapter to his long history with women and another to learning the diagnosis and subsequent Nov. 7, 1991, announcement.

There had never been anything like that frozen moment 20 years ago in the Forum Club, a restaurant by day and club scene late into the night after Lakers home games. General manager Jerry West, emotional under any circumstances, sat alone at the bar with red eyes, nursing what appeared to be either sparkling water or a clear soda, and saying he was unable to talk. Hundreds of fans waited outside the main entrance for news, or a glimpse, or maybe in hopes of just understanding. Legendary play-by-play man Chick Hearn, standing among the crowds, said he cried like a baby when he got the news and wasn't ashamed to admit it.

Johnson, of course, played again, coached, owned part of the Lakers, built a business empire and remained a corporate pitchman. He raised millions for HIV and AIDS research. He lasted 20 years, and counting, when no one promised him anything close to that kind of future. Magic left that day, and he went nowhere.

He did not flinch.

ALSO SEE: Magic's NBA future.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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