AP Was There: Magic announces he has HIV, retires from NBA
INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Magic Johnson stunned the NBA and those watching his news conference live on TV in 1991 by announcing he had tested positive for HIV and would be retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers. Johnson and the Lakers’ physician both made clear the guard didn’t have AIDS. Johnson said he didn’t know how he contracted the virus. Johnson later returned to play 36 games in 1996, including the playoffs, before retiring again. The Associated Press is republishing verbatim the story on Johnson’s announcement Nov. 7, 1991:
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Magic Johnson, whose beaming smile and sparkling play entertained basketball fans for more than a decade, announced Thursday he has tested positive for the AIDS virus and is retiring.
“Because of the HIV virus I have attained, I will have to announce my retirement from the Lakers today,” Johnson told reporters at the Forum, where he played for 12 superstar seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I plan on going on, living for a long time,” he said. He said he would become an AIDS activist and campaign for safe sex.
Both Johnson and the Lakers’ physician, Dr. Michael Mellman, said he doesn’t have AIDS, only the virus that leads to it. “I feel great,” Johnson said.
Johnson didn’t say how he contracted the virus, usually transmitted through sex or intravenous drug use. He referred questions about that to Mellman, who said, “I don’t believe we know at this point, specifically.”
Johnson repeatedly stressed that “safe sex is the way to go.”
Johnson, 32, led the Lakers to five NBA championships. He is the most prominent American to announce his infection with human immuno-deficiency virus since Rock Hudson.
AIDS activists and medical officials said Johnson’s stunning announcement would focus new attention on the deadly disease. Shortly after the announcement, a national AIDS hot line in Raleigh, N.C., was flooded with calls.
More than just a basketball star, Johnson has been a philanthropist, a prominent corporate spokesman and a role model for young people. His broad grin, familiar nickname and electrifying ability have made him familiar to people around the world.
Johnson came in fourth in a recent consumer survey of the appeal of athletes as commercial endorsers, behind Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Tommy Lasorda. He has endorsed Converse athletic shoes, Slice soft drinks and Kentucky Fried Chicken, among other products. Spokesmen for several of the companies wouldn’t immediately say whether they’d use him in the future.
Johnson appeared nervous at the outset of his announcement, but later relaxed and smiled frequently.
“I’m going to go on, I’m going to beat it and I’m going to have fun,” he insisted, displaying some of the irrepressible zest for life that he brought daily to the basketball court.
Mellman said: “What we have witnessed today is a courageous act by a very brave man.”
“He is not a person who is invisible, and because of his presence, because of his potential impact on society … I think that he should not only be commended but held as a modern-day hero,” Mellman said.
Johnson said he learned final results of his HIV test on Wednesday. Mellman said Johnson initially was tested for an insurance policy.
Johnson, who was married two months ago, said his wife tested negative for HIV.
Johnson missed the Lakers’ first three games this season because of what was described as the flu. On Monday, he was cleared to begin practicing.
Mellman said he recommended that Johnson not play professional basketball, nor participate in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, because of the intense level of physical activity both would require. Johnson had been named to the U.S. Olympic squad.
His retirement and news of his HIV infection came as a sharp blow to those who knew him, watched him and followed his career.
“It’s devastating to us,” Lakers General Manager Jerry West said.
“It’s really a tragedy,” said forward Kevin McHale of Lakers rivals the Boston Celtics. “I mean, the guy has not only been such a great player, but he’s been such a great ambassador for the game and everything else.”
Former Lakers coach Pat Riley, now with the New York Knicks, huddled with his team at center court and led the crowd at Madison Square Garden in prayer before a game Thursday night.
Health officials praised Johnson.
“Everyone must be aware that the AIDS epidemic can reach them,” Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan said. “I am very heartened by the announcement that in the months and years ahead, Magic Johnson will help carry a life-saving message to young people across our nation.”
Roy Schwarz, chairman of the American Medical Association’s AIDS task force, said Johnson’s announcement will “galvanize another quantum level of awareness by the public.”
“Of course, it’s a terrible tragedy, but in all tragedy there’s a potential for good,” Schwarz said.
On the floor of Congress, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., declared that “this just points out once again to all of us that the AIDS virus is probably going to touch every single family in the country.”
Elizabeth Taylor, a star anti-AIDS crusader, said in London: “All my love and support is with him.”
Johnson said he was looking forward to retirement, but would miss professional basketball. “I’ll miss the battles and the wars. Most of what I’ll miss is the camaraderie with the guys.”
But “This is not like my life is over, because it’s not. I’m going to live long. … I can work out and do everything a normal person can do.”
Johnson has been anything but normal in his basketball career. At 6-foot-9, Johnson revolutionized the point-guard position after leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship as a sophomore in 1979.
His 9,921 assists is a National Basketball Association record.
He was the first selection in the 1979 draft and immediately established himself as one of the league’s best players, leading the Lakers to the league championship the following spring.
With center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unable to play because of injury in the sixth game of the finals against Philadelphia, Johnson came through with a storybook performance. Playing all five positions, he had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a 123-107 Lakers victory to clinch the title in Philadelphia. He became the first rookie to be named MVP of the finals.
The Lakers reached the finals nine times in Johnson’s 12 seasons, most recently in June, when they were beaten by the Chicago Bulls in five games. Johnson earned all-league status for the ninth time.
Johnson, who is from Lansing, was married on Sept. 14 to longtime girlfriend Cookie Kelly. He has a son, Andre, who lives in Lansing.
Johnson, whose given first name is Earvin, received his nickname from a Lansing sportswriter after a 36-point, 18-rebound, 16-assist performance in high school.
AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report.
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