Magic again commanded the stage as only he could.
The surprise that did come that day for Orlando Arena was Los Angeles Lakers superstar guard Magic Johnson putting on a performance for the ages, earning MVP honors and, for one day, turning The Magic City into Magic’s City.
“There was something so poetic,” says NBA Commissioner David Stern. "It was such great poetry that Magic was the MVP that day.”
That February day in Orlando was a far cry from November 7, 1991, when Johnson, famous for his winning ways and million-dollar smile, stood stoically at a podium, stunning the world by announcing that he was retiring from the NBA after having been diagnosed as HIV positive, which was considered a death sentence at the time.
“I think everybody remembers that day. It was a day that just shocked everybody,” remembers Don Nelson, who was in his first stint with the Golden State Warriors at the time and who coached the Western Conference in the 1992 All-Star Game. “I never dreamed that anything like that could happen. That’s a pretty naive approach probably, but it was quite a shock.”
“I was sick to my stomach when I found out he was sick, when he announced it,” recalls then-Atlanta Hawks star forward and their current vice president of basketball Dominique Wilkins. “I couldn’t play. We had a game against the Boston Celtics that night, we were on the road. I cried. I really did, because here is a friend no longer being able to play and, more important, has a terminal disease.”
The discovery of his illness had come during a routine physical. While most teams were in the midst of training camp preparing for the arduous task of an 82-game season, Magic would soon prepare for a life-altering experience. But Magic refused to accept that his life was over.
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On the contrary, he saw his life just beginning. In December ‘91, he formed the Magic Johnson Foundation that dedicated itself to helping in the fight against HIV. He also continued to keep himself in peak physical condition.
When All-Star balloting was complete, even though he hadn’t played a game all season, the public made him the top vote-getter in the West. Never one to disappoint the public, Johnson chose to play.
Nelson did his best to get Johnson back up to game speed.
“It was a little different probably because he hadn’t played with any of the guys for so long,” he remembers. “Normally, as a coach, you just let them shoot hoops, but I actually conducted a little bit of a practice, for about a half-hour and a scrimmage, so he could get used to the guys and play some full court. So we actually had a little bit of a practice. It didn’t go over great, but we did it anyway. It was super for Magic.”
The next step was to get the players on board with letting him play. Because less was known about the disease or how it could be spread at the time, there was some anxiety about being on the floor with him. Utah’s Karl Malone was the most publicly vocal, but he was not alone, and the idea of Magic coming back was not universally accepted.
“Some players weren’t as generous at the time,” says Stern. “But It shows what the education process can do.”
Leading the call to let Magic play was his close friend Isiah Thomas.
“When some of the players decided that they did not want to play, I called a players’ meeting,” says the current New York Knicks head coach, who at the time was the star point guard for the Detroit Pistons. “I wanted to make sure all the players got out on the court and everyone dealt with it in a professional manner.”
All that was left was for Magic to take the floor. Golden State point guard Tim Hardaway, who was second in the balloting, was prepared to start the game. But when he learned of Magic’s desire to play, he didn’t think twice about abdicating his starting spot.
“It was a no-brainer,” says Hardaway, who scored 14 points and added seven assists in the game. “I wanted him to have my spot in the starting lineup because he earned it. Magic wasn’t ready to [retire] yet. He should have gone out the way he wanted to go out, and he never did. He deserved to play and to start in that All-Star Game. Fortunately, he won the MVP.”
Flanked by Golden State’s Chris Mullin, Utah’s Karl Malone, San Antonio’s David Robinson and Portland’s Clyde Drexler, the West, which had lost three of the previous four All-Star Games, dominated from start to finish. The West led 44-31 after one quarter and 79-55 at the half.
“I had a real simple approach that game,” Nelson recalled. “We wanted to run, get into the open the court and move the ball, and that’s what we did. Magic could really run when he played.”
The domination continued in the second half, when the West outscored the East 74-58 over the final two quarters to win going away, 153-113.
The West never scored fewer than 35 points in any quarter and their lowest output (35 points in the second stanza), was four points better than the East’s best 12 minutes.
With the game was no longer in doubt, it was time to have some fun and celebrate Magic Johnson. There was #32, in the royal blue uniform of the Western Conference All-Stars, on the floor with world’s best players, running and shooting and passing as only he could, as he had for the previous 12 seasons.
“It was great seeing Magic back out on the floor, smiling and doing his thing,” recalls Thomas. “Everyone on both teams wanted to make sure that the game turned out to very be special for him.
“We started playing the game to make sure everyone got a shot to play one-on-one against Magic,” he continues. “And everyone did get their chance.”
You didn’t even have to be on the floor to appreciate what Magic was doing.
“Oh, it was great, just because it was Magic,” says Wilkins, who along with Larry Bird had been voted to the Eastern Conference squad but did not play because of injury. “It didn’t matter if you played on the East or the West. It was Magic. The way he played was unbelievable.”
Alas, all good things come to an end, and as the clock wound down, Magic went out of his way to put as many exclamation points on the game as possible.
In its final two possessions, the East ran clear-outs, allowing Magic to go mano-a-mano defensively with Isiah then Michael, a confrontation that brought the crowd to its feet and even had players on the floor watching and applauding. Johnson forced Thomas into throwing up an airball from 15 feet out, while Jordan saw his right-side baseline jumper rim out. Finally, Magic brought the ball up court, then, after sliding away from Michael, who exaggerated his attempt to deny him the ball, received a return pass from Drexler and swished one final three over Thomas.
“If this is going to be it for me, I wanted to get Isiah one more time and I wanted to get Michael one more time,” says Johnson. “The only missing person was Larry. But I’ll see him on the blacktop. I’ll see him behind his house. I’ll get at him one more time.”
Fourteen seconds remained, but for all intents and purposes, the game ended there. No more shots were taken, as emotion swept over the floor and players from both squads hugged Johnson. Thomas handed him the game ball, gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
Johnson still refers to it as “the game called on account of hugs.” “Words mean a lot, but it’s feelings that count the most. Ours is a game of compassion. I’ll never forget those hugs and high-fives,” he says.
He finished the night playing 29 minutes (only Jordan played more) and had game-highs of 25 points, nine assists and three three-pointers. Drexler added 22 points and Robinson 19. Jordan’s 18 led the East.
The record shows that the Western Conference All-Stars left the floor that day with a 40-point victory, the largest margin in All-Star Game history and tied for the most points in a regulation All-Star Game.
The 1992 All-Star Game was the only game that Magic played that season, and that last three-pointer was the final All-Star basket for the 12-time All-Star. But it was far from the end of the road for Magic Johnson.
He returned to the court to take part in the original Dream Team, which won the gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, coached the Lakers for the final 16 games of the ‘93-94 season then concluded his playing career as a power forward for the final 32 of the ‘95-96 season. But Magic’s greatest works were still to come.
“What we in the NBA, the media and people all over the world have learned in the last five years is monumental,” Terry Lyons, an NBA vice president, told the L.A. Times on November 3, 1996. “And Magic Johnson is the reason, hands down. He put the news about the virus on the front page all over the world. He probably saved a lot of lives, when you think about it. Until then, the medical community had been 10 years ahead of the rest of us in terms of knowledge...Magic brought the two sides together.”
Johnson continues to work on the world stage, having become an outspoken activist in the fight against HIV, a successful entrepreneur and a tireless philanthropist.
“There isn’t anyone in this world that could have handled the situation the way Magic has handled it,” says Thomas. “He took everything head-on and has won, and won big.”
Hardaway believes it’s no coincidence that the man who left the game as the all-time leader in career assists (he was subsequently passed by Utah’s John Stockton in 1995), has never stopped assisting.
“He’s always there when you need him,” says Hardaway. “He’s always there when the NBA needs him. He’s always around. He’s always giving his opinion and his opinion counts because he’s Magic Johnson. That day when he made his retirement speech, I think that’s when he knew that he would help people in any way, in any form, and he’s been doing it ever since.”
Stern says the 1992 All-Star Game still holds a special place in his heart.
“In some ways it was a precursor,” says Stern. “Perhaps foreshadowing that Magic would become an example of not only of power of the drugs but of individual determination in doing the wonderful things that he’s been doing. It was in all ways magical. I smile every time I think about it.”