Cohen: The All-Magic Game

By Josh Cohen
October 27, 2011

ORLANDO -- Courage, gallantry and astonishment are just three terms to describe it.

From the controversy to the unforeseen to the implausible, Magic Johnson’s admirable and inspirational performance just three months after testing positive for HIV continues to enthuse each and every one of us.

Appropriately, at the home of the Magic, it was a magical effort from Magic that allowed the 1992 NBA All-Star Game to become one of the utmost enjoyable sporting events in American history.

In addition to my in-depth analysis, I, along with Dan Savage and Dr. Vincent Hsu, an infectious disease expert at Florida Hospital, respond to several questions. Also, send in your own responses to contest@orlandomagic.com and the best, most thought-out replies will be added underneath each question.



THE DAYS OF MVP'S & CHAMPIONSHIPS


His court vision was unprecedented, his skills were electrifying, his persona was engaging and his effects were conquering.

From the onset of his playing career until his premature retirement, Johnson was indisputably one of the best to ever lace them up.

In every facet of basketball competition, Magic was a champion. He guided his high school to a state title, his hometown college, Michigan State, to an NCAA championship and his forever-beloved L.A. Lakers to five NBA trophies, including one in his rookie season.

The individual coups were infinite: A three-time NBA MVP, a 12-time NBA All-Star, a three-time NBA Finals MVP, etc. etc.

The storylines such as his rivalry with Larry Bird, the performances including his Game 6 effort of the 1980 NBA Finals when he started at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists and the charisma he displayed like his captivating championship celebration speeches are why one could spend weeks if not months analyzing Johnson’s career.


Where do you think Magic Johnson ranks amongst the greatest NBA players ever?


RESPONSE

Cohen
I’m a believer that you can’t definitively and categorically conclude that one all-time great was absolutely better than another all-time great, especially if they played during different eras. The competition and style of play was likely dissimilar.

However, Magic Johnson was perhaps the most inimitable star the game has ever seen considering his size at point guard. At 6’9, Johnson was unstoppable, especially in the open floor. And he had, arguably, the most superlative court vision in NBA history.

Savage
There’s no doubt that he has to be towards the top of the list.

I think people – especially in the younger generation – quickly forget how much of an innovator Magic Johnson was on the basketball court and how well he saw the floor. Look, the stats speak for themselves: Five-time NBA champion, three-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP and 12-time All-Star. Enough said.

Fan
Chadley Mominee:
I agree that rating one all time great over another is virtually impossible. And I include the other MJ when I say that. But there are the few that really jump out. Those of whom you think of immediately when you think NBA.

Magic is absolutely one of those few. The story of his first NBA finals could not be more amazing. And when you look at his career from high school to pro, you realize this was just one of numerous spectacular performances.

To me, that is what makes him one of the three or four greatest of all time. A solid resume of course is a necessity, and Magic has a list of accolades. But it's those "Magic" moments that put players like Jordan, Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson in another stratosphere.






SOMETHING WRONG?


After claiming the Western Conference title the previous season, there was continued optimism about the Lakers’ chances of returning to The Finals prior to the start of the 1991-92 season.

Everything seemed normal during training camp and the early portion of the preseason. Johnson appeared dominant like usual and the compilation of his supporting cast, which included the likes of James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Vlade Divac, seemed formidable.

Since it was only exhibition, nobody, whether it was teammates, fans or media, were overly concerned about any absences. It’s always been expected that stars will rest in October as they freshen up for the grueling 82-game schedule.

It was Oct. 25 and the Lakers were in Salt Lake City to play the Jazz for one of their final two-preseason games. Not totally surprisingly since it was reported that he was feeling some fatigue, Magic was a DNP that night.

While everyone just assumed Johnson would return sooner than later, there was plenty of activity behind the scenes.

As we discovered weeks later, Magic had received a phone call from his team doctor, Michael Mellman, while still in Utah. Johnson was told to return to Los Angeles immediately, but wasn’t given an explanation for the sudden urgency.

When he met up with Dr. Mellman, Magic received some unanticipated and devastating news about the results of a mandatory physical examination for agreeing to a life insurance policy.

He was told that he had tested positive for HIV.



Magic said he felt completely healthy and ready to play by the start of the season. Is that normal for someone that had recently contracted HIV?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
The vast majority of patients infected with the HIV virus early in the course feel healthy. That’s why it is so important for health care providers to offer testing for HIV, because there are no symptoms early in the disease.


With Magic in lineup, would the Lakers have been the best of the West and returned to the NBA Finals in 1991-92?


RESPONSE

Cohen
While Magic Johnson’s presence would have likely made the Lakers the favorites in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers were just as formidable. The compilation of Clyde Drexler, Clifford Robinson and Terry Porter had already advanced to the NBA Finals (1990) and unmistakably had developed supreme team chemistry.

There is no doubt that although adversaries such as the Utah Jazz were blossoming out West, the conference finals would have come down to the Lakers and Blazers if Johnson had played in 1992.

Savage
Although it’s hard to say, I’m going to roll with a no on this one.

Clearly, the Lakers were at their best with a combination of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the floor. With Kareem out of the picture, L.A. was definitely a much more vulnerable squad, which showed as it fell to Michael Jordan’s Bulls 4-1 in the 1991 NBA Finals. That same year, the Lakers also watched their nine-year reign over the Pacific Division come to an end as Portland claimed supremacy. I believe the Blazers were ready to take the next step in the 1992 postseason and oust L.A. in the playoffs.

Fan
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THE SUSPICION


As the regular season began, NBA fans already had plenty to talk about. There was Michael Jordan and his quest to lead the Bulls to back-to-back NBA titles; there was the aging Bird and his hope to help the Celtics restore championship form; and there was a projected war out West between perennial powers Portland and Los Angeles.

In the midst of discussions about all of these topics, there was something noticeably missing on box scores and in highlights. There was no Magic Johnson.

The team had dispatched to the media that Johnson was dealing with “flu-like symptoms” that forced him to sit out the first three games of the regular season.

Suspicion, however, grew by the day. Magic had stopped attending team practices and it seemed very unlike him to be so hidden from the television cameras and public as a whole.

As we later learned, only a few people knew of Johnson’s illness at this time, including his wife, Cookie, his agent, Lon Rosen, Dr. Mellman, Jerry Buss and Jerry West.

All that would change, however, on Nov. 7 after it was confirmed through more extensive testing that Johnson had definitely attained the virus.


What are some early symptoms that one who has HIV would experience?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
At the time of initial infection, many individuals may feel like they have a viral infection consisting of a fever, mild rash, and swollen lymph glands. However, that resolves after several days to weeks and most individuals will feel normal again. Any person who is at risk of contracting HIV with symptoms as described should see a provider and get tested for HIV.






THE ANNOUNCEMENT


It became known as the press conference of the century.

People, basketball fans or not, stopped what they were doing and got in front of a television to watch this implausible announcement.

Extraordinarily composed and spirited, Johnson stepped up to the podium and delivered his heartrending revelation.

“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,” Johnson declared on that exceptionally agonizing evening.

“I want to make it clear I do not have the AIDS disease. My wife is fine, she’s negative.”

“I plan on going on, living for a long time. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league for a while and going on with my life.”

“I’m going to miss playing and I will now become a spokesman for the virus.”

“Life is going to go on for me and I will be a happy man.”

“This is another challenge, another chapter in my life. It’s like your back is against the wall. You just have to come out swinging so I’m swinging.”


What were your immediate thoughts while watching the press conference?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
I was living in Los Angeles at the time so I was already a huge Laker fan. Obviously, I was devastated, and remember thinking that Magic was not going to live to see the 21st century. With newer and more effective therapies for HIV becoming available in the mid-1990s I was glad to be wrong.

Cohen
Despite being just 9 years old, I was shocked, distressed and perplexed. With what everyone around me was saying (ex. Johnson wasn’t going to live much longer), it was hard to grasp such a sudden news story.

It was very agonizing to see Johnson, a player I had always admired on the court, have to announce his retirement because of such a serious illness.

Savage
I was sad and baffled.

As kids, we have a tendency to look at athletes as invincible, superhero-like beings. They’re in a number of ways looked at as the epitome of fitness and seemingly invulnerable to disease. This announcement caused that train of thought to come crashing down.

Fan
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THE UNAWARENESS


In 1991, there wasn’t a whole lot known about HIV and the AIDS disease.

There wasn’t much education in school about it nor were every day people overly frightened about contracting it.

However, there was an instinctive reaction most of us had when anyone mentioned HIV and/or AIDS – Death Sentence.

Back then, the disease was so unfamiliar to most that we generally took the little information we had about it and formed our own conclusions. Those premises, though very scientifically unconvincing, were generally straight to the point. If you get the virus, you will die shortly after.

As a result of these postulations, most, if not all, of the general population who became so betrothed by Johnson’s startling announcement assumed his life would soon be over.

It seemed at the time that only Magic was confident, that only he was optimistic that he could beat this mysterious disease.

We all hoped he was right, but sorrowfully, we presupposed not even the illustrious Magic Johnson can triumph in this battle.


What did you know about HIV when Magic announced he had it and for Dr. Hsu, should there have been any concern about Magic playing professional basketball again?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
I was in my first year of medical school when I saw Magic’s press conference so I had some basic medical knowledge. There should never had been any concern about playing professional basketball. Even at that time, the experts knew that the chances of another player contracting HIV through activities such as basketball was virtually zero. However, it took years before those misconceptions were finally understood and accepted by the public.

Cohen
From what I remember, all I knew was that HIV and AIDS was a serious illness that likely led to death shortly after it was contracted. Beyond that, I was relatively clueless, considering my age and how little the subject was taught in school at that time.

Based on the reaction of others when Johnson announced he had the virus, it just seemed that the disease was essentially a death sentence.

Savage
At the time, I remember just being able to link HIV and AIDS together and thinking that if you have HIV, it’s only a matter of time before you get AIDS. And that once you have AIDS, it’s not long before you’ll pass on.

Fan
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ALL-STAR BOUND?


Like the old adage goes, the show must go on and it did.

Minus “Showtime,” the epithet Johnson had formed because of his electrifying style of play, the NBA marched forward. It didn’t always feel right, almost like a rock band without it’s lead guitarist, but the music played on.

While Jordan’s Bulls appeared even more governing than a season earlier and with new prodigies forming in the West without Johnson dishing out no-look passes, you couldn’t help but grieve the game’s subtraction.

There was something very glaring, however, over the first couple months of the season.

At all NBA arenas and through other promotional outlets, NBA All-Star ballots were handed out to fans to determine who they want to start in the midseason classic.

Since Magic was initially on the Lakers roster, his name was printed on the ballot. As a result of his popularity, it seemed very possible that he could be voted in. And despite nobody would expect him to actually participate, voting for him would be a way to honor his heroism.

Not before long, this prospective veracity proved unfeigned when Magic was named a starter for the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, which would take place in Orlando on Feb. 9.


Do you think Magic deserved to compete in the All-Star Game despite not playing in the season?


RESPONSE

Cohen
All-Star Games are designed for the fan’s enjoyment and there was no doubt that everyone wanted to watch Magic Johnson at least one more time on the NBA hardwood.

It was imperative for Johnson to show others who were dealing with serious illnesses that they can still achieve their goals. By playing, he did just that. Therefore, it was definitely fitting for him to participate.

Savage
Absolutely. Magic Johnson was in the process of showing the world that even if you’re handed a “death sentence” you can still fight on, beat the odds and do amazing things with your life.

Plus, the fans wanted to see him on the court and that’s what the All-Star Game is all about.

If anyone wants to argue the other side on this one, please do. I’ll be happy to go at it on Twitter.

Fan
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THE CONTROVERSY


As anyone would expect from the showstopper, there was a prickle, an itch, a craving for Johnson to return to the hardwood – even for just one, generally inconsequential game.

When he decided he would suit up for the Western Conference All-Stars and appease the fans who so desperately wanted to see him run the floor like old times, however, controversy immediately arose.

Some players felt it wasn’t right for Johnson to play, either because it takes away a spot for another player who may have the statistical merit to participate or because of the fear that it could be possible to contract the disease through physical play.

Nevertheless, Magic felt it was important to show others who are HIV-positive or have other serious illnesses or handicaps that they belong.

As All-Star Weekend drew closer and players and league officials posed questions about HIV and how it can be transferred, the overall sentiment was encouraging.

Since Johnson’s shocking announcement about three months earlier, much focus was placed on HIV because it had attacked a celebrity. People were suddenly curious and those in the medical field were very concentrated on knowing all the facts about the virus.

After all the roadblocks were cleared away, it was official that Magic would partake in the All-Star Game and join the elite in what would ultimately become a spectacle beyond belief.







THE INTRODUCTIONS


It was fitting in many ways that Magic would play his first game since his retirement at the home of the Magic.

In Orlando, the birthplace of the slogan “Where Dreams Come True,” it was time for Johnson to do just that, make his dreams come true and anyone inspired by his valor to go out and do the same thing.

Though the All-Star Game was hosted at an Eastern Conference arena, the league decided to introduce the West All-Stars last so that Johnson can be the final player unveiled to the crowd.

From the stadium address announcer:

“And starting at the other guard, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists, a three-time Most Valuable Player, led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during the 1980’s, one of the greatest players of all-time, making his 12th All-Star Game appearance, Earviiiiiiiin “Magic” Johnson!!”

Just by watching it on television, you could hear how vociferous the sold-old crowd was. It was heartwarming, uplifting and poignant. Magic’s introduction lasted for about three minutes, during which several other All-Stars walked up to him and gave him a hug.

The stage was set, the combatants were ready and finally, Showtime was back!!!


How inspirational was it for Magic to show others who have illnesses that they can still accomplish their dreams?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
You couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate hero than Magic to have come forward with his illness. He had the smile, the optimism, and the charisma that inspired millions, both infected and non-infected alike.

Cohen
Extremely inspirational. There are many people who assume that if you are sick or deal with a handicap that you can’t accomplish your goals and dreams. Johnson, on the other hand, demonstrated that it is very possible and as long as you have courage and optimism, nothing is out of bounds.

Savage
At that moment in time, he was the person kids looked to and were able to say themselves, “Anything is possible.” For children battling the same frightening disease, there was now a beacon of hope. There was something to point to. If Magic Johnson can still achieve his dreams, why can’t I? It was to say the very least, an extremely inspirational moment.

Fan
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THE PERFORMANCE


It was apparent early on that Johnson wanted to be aggressive. He wanted to prove that he still could captivate an audience with his dazzling skills.

It didn’t take long for him to do just that.

Five minutes into the action, Magic took the ball off the inbounds in the backcourt and drove the length of the court for his first basket.

Since it was an All-Star Game, defense wasn’t a priority for any player. As a result, statistics were, as expected, soaring across the box score.

With the West dominating and with Clyde Drexler leading all scorers with 22 points at the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the conclusion would feature his starting backcourt teammate doing the unimaginable.

It started with back-to-back long range 3-pointers from well beyond the arc. It followed with two glittery assists – one to Chris Mullin and the other to Dan Majerle – and two stalwart defensive stops – one against Isiah Thomas and the other against Michael Jordan.

But the best was saved for last.

With the clock winding down and with both Thomas and Jordan playfully trying to deny Magic from scoring another point, Johnson managed to get his hands on the ball, backed down Thomas, faded away and drilled a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining.

Just…wow!

Though there technically was still time left, the East decided it would be most appropriate to end the game there to allow everyone to celebrate Magic’s stunning performance.

Johnson finished with 25 points, nine assists and five rebounds and unsurprisingly was honored as the game’s MVP.

“Magic, you are the most valuable player, you are the most courageous person, the moment is yours, congratulations,” NBA Commissioner David Stern expressed to Johnson during the MVP ceremony.

“Let me thank all the fans who voted me here. I would also like to thank the players who decided everything would be okay if they played with me and against me,” Johnson said to the crowd.

“Maybe you will see me back, maybe you won’t, but I will remember all these good times this afternoon. Thank you.”


What do you remember most from the 1992 NBA All-Star Game?


RESPONSE

Cohen
I will always cherish the final seconds when Magic backed Isiah down and sunk a 3-pointer to end the game. You couldn’t have asked for a more “magical” ending.

I also recall how much the West demolished the East, despite most believing that the East had the more talented roster (Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, Pippen, Thomas, etc.). I think the addition of Johnson provided some extra motivation for the West.

Savage
If we’re being completely honest, what I remember most was seeing the highlights during the broadcast of Cedric Ceballos’ blindfolded dunk from the Slam Dunk Contest.

Sure, it didn’t really have anything to do with the game, but as a kid, I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever.

Fan
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THE AFTERMATH


Perhaps a result of his outstanding MVP performance in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game and his involvement with the 1992 Olympic Team, Johnson made a valiant attempt to come out of retirement by reuniting with the Lakers to start the 1992-93 season.

Controversy, however, sparked by opposition from several active players forced Johnson to remain retired.

It would take a few years, but eventually in 1996, Magic did finally return to the Lakers. He played in 32 games at the power forward position, averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

As inspirational as his basketball returns were, most importantly, Johnson’s commitment to helping others become more aware of HIV has revolutionized the medical industry.

Over the years, so much funding has gone in to combating HIV and although there still isn’t a cure, we are all more educated about the disease. And much of that is in thanks to Magic.

Almost 20 years to the day since his startling announcement, Johnson is still alive and strong. That's an incredible thing to say considering how we all felt back in November of 1991.


Do you think Magic Johnson is the main reason why we know so much more about HIV and AIDS today?


RESPONSE

Dr. Hsu
Magic Johnson was definitely a key reason that the public back then became so much more aware about HIV and AIDS. Unlike other celebrities at the time who may have tried to deny or hide their disease, Magic chose to be transparent and open about it. His influence no doubt was a major reason that increased funding for HIV research and activism. And as a result, we have therapies available that allow HIV individuals to live a normal life span.

Cohen
Absolutely. Johnson brought HIV to the forefront of all discussions in the early 90’s and people, as a result, became extremely curious about it. In schools, the subject became one of the primary topics in health classes and many charity functions catered to gaining funds to try and find a cure for this terrible disease.

Savage
There are two things that I remember pushing AIDS to the forefront of discussion: Magic Johnson and the movie Philadelphia.

So, I absolutely feel comfortable saying that Johnson is a major reason we know so much about the disease today.

Fan
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To learn more about HIV and other health-related issues, please visit Florida Hospital's official web site.