Magic Johnson Announces He is HIV+ and Retires From Basketball

After a physical before the 1991–92 NBA season, Johnson discovered that he had tested positive for HIV. In a press conference held on November 7, 1991, Johnson made a public announcement that he would retire immediately.

He stated that his wife Cookie and their unborn child did not have HIV, and that he would dedicate his life to "battle this deadly disease". Johnson initially said that he did not know how he contracted the disease, but later admitted that it was through having multiple sexual partners during his playing career. At the time, only a small percentage of HIV-positive people had contracted it from heterosexual sex, and it was initially rumored that Johnson was gay or bisexual, although he denied both. Johnson's announcement became a major news story in the United States, and in 2004 was named as ESPN's seventh most memorable moment of the past 25 years. Many articles praised Johnson as a hero, and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush said, "For me, Magic is a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports."

The physical examination was supposed to be routine. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted to give Magic Johnson a gift -- a $3 million loan to supplement his salary. But Buss' advisors suggested that he take out a life insurance policy as protection against the loan. Naturally, Johnson agreed.
The results were anything but routine. The results not only changed a league, a franchise, a city, and a man.

It changed the world.

Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers' team physician, was the first to receive the results of the physical that showed Johnson had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus that could lead to AIDS. He telephoned Johnson, who was in Salt Lake City for an exhibition game against the Utah Jazz. The 2001 season was a week away. Mellman informed Johnson that he had to return immediately to Los Angeles. He didn't want to reveal too much, didn't want to scare Magic. Johnson caught the next plane to L.A. and went directly to Mellman's office.

There, inside Mellman's office, Johnson's world was turned inside out. Life would never be the same again. He was HIV-positive. But how? How in the world could he be HIV-positive? He wasn't gay. Only the gay community was inflicted with this deadly disease. So everyone thought. Now the disease had crept into the heterosexual world. Magic's world. The sports world.

Immediately, Magic's mind flashed to his wife, who was pregnant. He had to make sure Cookie was OK, that the baby was safe. Mellman informed Johnson that he could no longer play basketball, that he would have to retire, that he would need all of his strength to battle this disease, to prolong his life for as long as he could.

The shock of Mellman's words, the suggestion, was numbing. The regular season was one week away and here was Magic, one of the NBA's most beloved players, listening to a doctor tell him he was HIV-positive and would have to retire from the game he loved so dearly.

But Magic refused to believe the test. He said it couldn't be right, it couldn't be true. So he requested another test. That one came up positive, as well. He still didn't believe it. So he requested to take a third test. The results would be in later that week.

For more than a week, Magic was out of the Lakers' lineup, and no one outside the Lakers' family had a clue of what was happening. The team said Johnson had a virus, that he lost some weight, that he was weak, and that he would return when he was ready.

On November 5, as the Lakers were preparing to play the Clippers in the third game of the regular season, Magic told reporters that he was feeling better but was not yet over his flu. Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy told the press that he hoped Johnson would play in the following game, on Sunday, on national TV.

Later that day, the third test results results arrived. This one came up positive too. Magic knew that he would have to tell the world he was HIV-positive and would have to retire from the NBA.

THE MOMENT
November 7, 1991. Los Angeles. The phone call arrives early in the morning, "2 o'clock press conference, at the Forum," the Lakers' media relations official says. "Major announcement. About Magic."

"The Lakers have scheduled a press conference," a radio announcer says nervously. "The announcement has to do with Magic Johnson, who has been out of the lineup since last week in Utah. Magic could be out for a lot longer than anticipated."

Word arrives to the media that Johnson is ill. Very ill. He is only 32, a veteran of 12 seasons in the NBA, nine of which resulted in trips to the NBA finals, and five of those with NBA championships.

Early in the morning, Johnson telephones his best friends, one after another -- Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Pat Riley -- to tell them that he will have to retire, that he is HIV-positive, and that he wanted them to hear it from him, not from a news report.

Magic arrives at the Forum around noon. Dunleavy gathers all the Lakers in the dressing room before the press conference. Magic walks in, dressed in a suit and tie. He breaks the news that he must retire. Everyone breaks down.

The press room is quiet, tense, as Magic walks in. He is grim. He is followed by various Lakers officials. Magic walks to the podium. He bends his head and speaks into the microphone, announcing, "Because of the virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers."

The jam-packed room is motionless, stunned, numb. Tears well up in the eyes of many in the room. But there's not a tear a Johnson's eye.

Calm, upbeat and relaxed, Johnson tells reporters that he "will battle this deadly disease," that he will become a national spokesman about HIV because he wants young people to understand "that safe sex is the way to go. We sometimes think only gay people can get it, that it's not going to happen to me," he would say. "And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson."

The question on many reporters' minds is how Magic contracted the disease, but he did not know. How long did he have to live, reporters ask. A few weeks? A few months?

"There is no immediate effect on his life, other than we have advised him to avoid activities which can further impair his immune system," Mellman would tell the press. Mellman says he told Johnson to retire because the rigors of pro basketball would weaken his physical condition and hasten the onset of AIDS.

Reporters wonder about Magic's wife, Cookie, and her pregnancy. Johnson confirms that she is OK, that the baby is OK, that neither of them tested HIV-positive.

Magic's positive demeanor brightens the gloom and doom in the room, at least to a certain degree. "This is not like my life is over because it's not," he tells the crowd. "I'm going to live on. Everything is still the same. I can work out. ... I'll just have to take medication and go on from there."

He smiles. He looks out toward the crammed room of reporters, fans, friends and teammates and says, "This is another challenge in my life. It's like your back is against the wall. And you have to come out swinging. And I'm swinging."

He shows absolutely no trace of self-pity. He tells reporters he still will be around to needle them. "I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have," he would say with another huge smile. "You'll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers. ... Of course, I will miss the battles and the wars, and I will miss you guys. But life goes on."

While people in the crowd wipe away tears, the dry-eyed Johnson concludes the news conference by saying, "I'm going to go on. I'm going to beat this, and I'm going to have fun."

Basketball star Magic Johnson says he has AIDS -- November 7, 1991

In a stunning announcement, Los Angeles Laker guard Earvin (Magic) Johnson says he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The star player says he will quit professional basketball and become a spokesman for the fight against the deadly virus.

On November 7, 1991, basketball legend Magic Johnson holds a press conference to announce that he has HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and is retiring from the L.A. Lakers. From then on, he said, he would focus on staying healthy and on helping people--especially young people--understand the importance of practicing safe sex. "You think it can never happen to you," he said, "that it happens only to other people." But "if it can happen to Magic Johnson, it can happen to anybody."
In 1991, many people didn’t understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, and they thought that either one was a certain death sentence. When Johnson’s fans and friends heard the news, many were convinced he would die within a year or two. They were stunned and heartbroken. They did what they could to mourn: For example, Pat Riley, the coach of the New York Knicks, delayed his team’s opening tip so that he could read the Lord’s Prayer to the crowd. Johnson himself tried to be optimistic, but even he wasn’t sure what the news meant. "I’ll live," he said. "I won’t die. And if I do die, I’ll be happy. I’ve had a great life."
But it soon became clear that he wasn’t going to die--not yet, anyway. He didn’t even feel sick. Good doctors and carefully calibrated medications kept his viral load so low that it wasn’t even detectable in his blood. And once he’d gotten over the shock of his diagnosis, Johnson realized that he missed basketball. He played in the All-Star Game at the end of the 1991-92 season, leading the West to a 153-113 victory and winning the game’s MVP award. He played on the gold-medal-winning Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics that summer. He thought about returning to the Lakers the next fall--he even went to training camp with the team--but some other NBA players (notably Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz) refused to play against someone who had the AIDS virus. They feared that contact with Johnson’s skin or sweat might make them sick, too, even though doctors had shown that it was impossible to get HIV that way.

vision cameras were on. Reporters waited. The world held its breath.

Then gasped.

Story continues below ↓
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On Nov. 7, 1991, the beloved Lakers guard announced he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS and would be retiring from professional basketball immediately. How could this be?

A physical taken before the 1991-92 season revealed that Johnson had tested positive for HIV, but his wife, Cookie and their unborn child did not have the virus. He said at that time he would dedicate his life to "battling this deadly disease."

Over the past 18 years, Johnson not only has become a face to the deadly disease, but has shown how well you can live with HIV if you catch it early. Today, Johnson is not only one of the 50 greatest all-time basketball players, he is part Lakers owner, a successful businessman and philanthropist, who has awarded more than $1.1 million to community-based organizations that focus on HIV/AIDS education and prevention.

He also has established four HIV/AIDS clinics and co-created the award-winning "I Stand With Magic" campaign, designed to end HIV/AIDS in the black community.

Kenny Smith, TNT analyst told USA Today in 2006, "Before then, people were ostracized, in my estimation, for having the disease. Magic was the person, because his name reached far beyond sports, to make (HIV) acceptable, more a disease than a mark of shame."

Johnson said having the right attitude and catching the disease early are two keys to living with the disease.

"You have to be really good about living with your diagnosis or your illness," Johnson said on the Oprah Show earlier this year. "I never felt like I was defeated and that I was going to give up and that it's over. I think that's why I've been living with HIV so long. I've always said 'OK, I'm going to do all the things I have to do and I know I'm going to be here for a long time."