November 7, 1991 was just another ordinary day early in my fifth grade year. Go to school, do my homework in the afterschool program then come home and get ready for a rec league flag football game. I just happened to turn the news on in the living room waiting for my mom to take me to the game and there was arguably the greatest basketball player I had seen in my life at that time announcing that he contracted HIV, the virus that leads to full-blown AIDS. Magic Johnson looked as healthy as ever that day as he had about five months earlier when he valiantly led his short-handed Los Angeles Lakers against the Chicago Bulls, but my teammates/friends and I were all afraid for his life as we dedicated our game that night to him.
See, to a 10-year old, HIV/AIDS were just other words for death. We knew nothing other than it was a sickness that no one wanted to get. We had heard how it made you skinny and weak and it was just a matter of time before you were dead and we all figured Magic Johnson was headed down that same path. 20 years later, Magic is still going strong at age 52 with a variety of business interests and different gigs as a basketball analyst to keep busy. His considerable wealth certainly helped his chances of survival, but if Magic Johnson did nothing in 12-plus years as an NBA great, giving HIV/AIDS a decidedly famous face definitely trumps the hoops legacy.
Magic himself knew he was living wrong when he contracted HIV 20 years ago. He considered himself two people according to “The book of basketball” by Bill Simmons. Earvin was the calmer side while Magic was the Showtime legend who threw no-look passes on the court and rarely turned down passes from eligible and willing ladies after the game. Instead of going into hiding and fighting the disease in private, he went on talk shows and did special programs (I still remember the Nick News special with Linda Ellerbee vividly) to say to kids and adults: “Hey, this is no joke, this is not fun, this is really bad for you, so take care of yourself and don’t have unprotected sex.”
We learned eventually from the death of Arthur Ashe that there were many other ways that one could contract HIV/AIDS, but in the case of Magic Johnson, sex was the buzzword and it forced parents to talk to their children about practicing safe sex if you chose to be sexually active.
Still, there’s work left to be done. HIV/AIDS in poor people of color is STILL ridiculously high and when you’re not in Magic Johnson’s tax bracket, the struggle remains real until the day you take your final breath. It has become slightly easier, but we still need to educate ourselves and everyone around us that HIV/AIDS is not a game.
I’m sure every once in a while Magic probably asks himself “Why?” But I’m sure he also knows his irresponsibility as a young man led to the great responsibility as HIV/AIDS spokesman that he carries so well now. Thankfully he’s still around to tell the story of survival. And with more education and medical advances, hopefully many more can join him in facing the disease with a bright smile.