November 7, 1991
On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson held a press conference at the Great Western Forum to reveal that he’d contracted the HIV virus.
Lakers head trainer Gary Vitti, who has been close to Magic since first meeting him at Lakers training camp in advance of the 1984 season, was one of only seven people to first hear the news that no one else would know for a two-week period. At the time, contracting HIV was thought to be a death sentence.
Vitti shared with us what it was like during the extremely difficult days leading up to Magic’s announcement, detailing how remarkably strong Magic was despite the circumstances:
MT: I know it’s never an easy thing for you to discuss, Gary, but let’s start at the beginning, the first time the alarm bells went off for you with regards to Magic’s health in the late fall of 1991.
Vitti: I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d gone to the Finals in 1991 and lost to the Bulls, and regrouped heading into the next season. We had a good training camp, and then we went to Paris for the McDonald’s Cup, and played a couple of games in France. We still had two preseason games left, one being in Salt Lake, and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, against the Seattle SuperSonics before Vancouver had a team. Just before the trip, Magic called me up and said, ‘I’m really tired, and with the season coming up, I’d really like to take these last two games off.’ I said I’d try to get him out of the games, so I called (then general manager) Jerry West, and Jerry said that Magic didn’t have to play in Salt Lake, but that he had to play in Vancouver. I don’t think they’d sold that game out, and if Magic wasn’t coming, they for sure weren’t going to. So I told Magic that I got him out of one game, but not both, and Magic said, ‘Well if I’m going to go on the trip, I may as well just play in both games.’ He wanted to stay home, not go on the trip and not play. So we fly to Salt Lake, and we get off the plane, and as soon as we get to the bus, the driver tells me, ‘You need to call the office right away.’ So I call, and they said to put Magic Johnson on a plane going home, immediately. I said, ‘Why,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just send him home.’ I’m calling our doctors, and nobody will tell me anything. So I go to Magic and ask him what’s going on, and he says, ‘I don’t know?’ I’m saying to myself that there’s no way Magic went over my head to the doctors to get out of the trip, because that’s not him. We send him home, knowing nothing, and obviously my head is spinning, wondering what’s going on. I’m coming up with zeros. But as the day went on and we played our game, I was very upset ... I’d figured it out about Magic.
MT: You had figured out that Magic had acquired HIV?
Vitti: Well, I knew that he’d taken an extensive physical exam for his life insurance policy, because I had to fill out some of the paperwork. I knew they did a lot of tests, and one of them was an HIV screening. So I figured, that’s got to be it. He either has cancer or he has HIV. It took me a while, a whole day of thinking about it, but I couldn’t let it go.
MT: You’re racking your brain trying to come up with something, anything else? Some other explanation?
Vitti: Yes, I was trying not to really believe it, and I was holding out hope that it was something else. And so we leave Utah and go to Vancouver, and I get a call at the crack of dawn from the team doctor, Dr. Mellman. I say, ‘Mickey, I figured it out, you don’t have to tell me … Magic’s HIV positive.’ (Editor’s note: Vitti pauses, fighting tears, for about 10 seconds.) Mickey said, ‘Yeah, I knew you’d figure it out. Nobody knows, but Magic wanted you to know.’ I’ve told this story many times, but it still gets me.
MT: How many people knew about Magic’s condition at this point?
Vitti: At the time, only seven people knew: Dr. Mellman, Magic, Magic’s wife Cookie, (agent) Lon Rosen, Jerry West, Dr. Jerry Buss and me. It was really new territory, and we didn’t know what to do. There were legal ramifications, and many things that needed to be discussed, including another test to make sure it wasn’t a false positive, even though that was unlikely. We had to stall to get another test done, and it went about two weeks with only those seven people knowing.
MT: What kind of questions were you getting from the media about Magic’s absence? Did you have to share a different story?
Vitti: I think we said Magic had the flu. And so he was away from the team the whole time, but he met me at practice before everybody got there one day, just him and me. We talked about it, and I told him I’d be there for him no matter what he needed, and he left. Now, you have the head coach, Mike Dunleavy, who doesn’t know what’s going on, and I’m basically lying to him…
MT: I’m going to stop you there if I can. What was Magic’s demeanor like when you met him that day? How was he doing?
Vitti: I can tell you exactly what he said to me. I asked if he was OK, because, I said, ‘I’m a wreck.’ He said to me: ‘God gave me this disease, and he gave it to the right guy. I’m going to beat this, and do something really good with it.’ And he has. That was his attitude. It gave me strength, which is what I was supposed to give him, but I didn’t. He did.
MT: Wow. OK, let’s get back to how you were dealing with the issue before it became public:
Vitti: We went those two weeks, and eventually Magic decided to retire and we had to make an announcement. The team was flying out on a Thursday, and Lon called me on Tuesday to share that Magic wanted me to get a room at the airport, get all the players and coaches in the room when they show up for the flight, and he was going to address the team and tell them the news. We’re all going to get on a plane and fly to wherever we’re flying to, and Magic was going to go back to the Forum for a press conference to tell the world. We were supposed be on a plane so the players weren’t going to be approached by the press right after the found out. That was the plan. But when we were at practice on Wednesday, I got a call from Jerry West. He said, ‘Get everybody out of practice right now. There’s been a leak, and the press is all on its way to Loyola. Get the players out of there, tell them not to talk to anybody or say a word. I don’t care what they have to do, tell them to cancel their plans and get to the Forum.’ So that’s what I did. I ran into the gym, called Mike Dunleavy over, and told him what was going on. The players still didn’t know, and some said that they had plans. I said, ‘Cancel your plans. Today is going to change your life.’ And it did. It changed all of our lives. So everybody gets in cars and leaves, and you can see as we’re driving out, a parade of media members are driving in. We’re passing them.
Editor’s Note: Lakers VP of Public Relations John Black first heard the news on that Wednesday, while the team was at practice, in the office of then team president Lou Baumeister.
John Black: It was extremely emotional, and obviously a whirlwind. When I found out, I was shocked. While walking from Lou Baumeister’s office back to my office, I just broke down and started sobbing. I literally fell into the accounting department and collapsed into a chair and started sobbing. Then I pulled myself together, went into my office and did what I had to do, starting to put together the biggest press conference in the history of sports. This was before the days of the Internet, obviously, so we probably faxed out a media advisory. Randy Kerdoon of KFWB actually broke the story, and once that broke, it was a domino effect. It became gigantic. The original plan was that Magic would first tell the team, and he also wanted to personally call Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, a couple of other people including some family members, and do some other things he had to do, but that’s not how it worked out.
MT: What happened once everyone arrived at the Forum?
Vitti: Everybody ended up at the Forum, we went down to the locker room, and Magic told the team. It was tearful. But Magic knew how to say the right thing to each person. After addressing the group, he went to each guy, gave a hug and whispered something into each of their ears. I was the last one, and standing next to me was (Director of Scouting/Consultant) Bill Bertka, who is stoic, tough, ice – I had never once seen Bill emotional. Magic put his arms around him, whispered something into his ear, and Bill’s knees just buckled. He broke down. Magic held him and picked him up, and me seeing that made me lose it. So I was next, and I said, ‘It’s OK man, you and I have already had our talk.’ Magic put his arms around me, and whispered in my ear, ‘Yeah … but it doesn’t make it any easier.’ He gave me a hug, and we all went upstairs to the Forum Club, and Magic told the world. It was an emotional locker room, but once Magic went up there, he pulled it together.
MT: When we today see Magic so full of life, so vibrant, do we perhaps forget – at least to a degree – what the letters “HIV” meant in 1991?
Vitti: We thought it was a death sentence, just a matter of time. He was going to die.
MT: Do you think Magic ever believed that?
Vitti: No. He told me that he was going to beat it. But when he said it to you at the time, you’re like, ‘Good attitude, man.’ You didn’t really think he was going to beat it.
MT: How has your relationship with Magic gone through the years since 1991?
Vitti: Last time we had training camp in Hawaii, Magic invited some of us – my wife Marta and I, Brian Shaw and his wife, and Lon Rosen – to dinner. And we told all the old stories like it was yesterday. When I see him, it’s always like that. It just got cut short, and that’s one of the saddest things. His career was cut short, which was sad for him and sad for the franchise, because at the time, the Celtics got old all at the same time. But we weren’t like that. We were trying to rebuild. Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) retired, but we got Sam Perkins, and we wake up one day and everything went down the drain. It took us nine years to regroup from that. We never had a real chance to rebuild, the whole thing crumbled over night. You wonder what this franchise might have done had Magic been there, with Jerry West and Dr. Buss running things. We never had a chance to compete after 1991, which is sad for all of us.
MT: What do you recall from Magic’s performance at the 1992 All-Star game, when he made 9-of-12 shots for 25 points with nine assists and five rebounds, plus a last-second three-pointer?
Vitti: I watched it on TV. Both that and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona … I just felt so wonderful for the guy. He didn’t go out the way he wanted to, but because of that, he went out better than he may have. Like my mother says, everything happens for a reason. Maybe the world is a better place because Earvin Johnson contracted H.I.V.
MT: Who else could have carried the burden the way Magic has? Alas, finally, what do you make of what he’s been able to accomplish through his charity work and with his businesses in the last several years?
Vitti: He did the rest of his life the same way he did it on the basketball court. The man’s a champion.
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