When CNN first released excerpts of disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s sit-down with anchor Anderson Cooper, one of the odder moments in the highlight reel was Sterling’s criticisms of Magic Johnson as a role model. The full interview revealed the reason: Sterling thinks Johnson is an embarrassment because of his sexual history and the fact that he is HIV positive.
That is an ugly, retrograde sentiment that shames people who contracted the virus because of their sexual history. And Sterling also profoundly misunderstands the ways in which Johnson’s HIV diagnosis actually led him to make enormous contributions. Johnson has not just been a role model to the “children of Los Angeles” Sterling said should be his focus, but also an ambassador who changed America’s understanding of his disease.
When Johnson revealed his HIV status in 1991, many Americans still thought that the disease was limited to gay men, and in particular to white gay men, even as the virus jumped populations. Johnson alluded to that in his remarkable news conference announcing his diagnosis and his retirement from the Lakers.
“We think, well, only gay people can get it, it’s not going to happen to me,” Johnson said, explaining his decision to focus on HIV and safe sex education and advocacy, which he would do through his Magic Johnson Foundation. “And here I am, saying it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”
In coming out, Johnson provided a radically different image of what it meant to live with HIV. He was African American, heterosexual, married (he emphasized his relief that his wife had tested negative) and outwardly healthy.
“My strength is fine; I can work out and do everything a normal person can do,” he said, urging his fellow NBA players to get tested and to learn their statuses.
Johnson himself said he got tested only because he needed to as part of the process of purchasing a life insurance policy. In his coming-out press conference, Johnson ceded the stage to a group of doctors, giving them an opportunity to explain to sports reporters the medical consensus on how to treat HIV and the prognosis for survival.
Despite his retirement, Johnson would come back to play professional basketball again, being named MVP of the All-Star Game in 1992 and playing on the Dream Team in the Olympics that same year. It was a remarkable illustration of what life with HIV could be.
He did not do it alone, and without the support of his league and teammates, either. Professional sports sometimes get a bad rap for lagging on social issues: Michael Sam’s selection by the St. Louis Rams in this year’s NFL draft will finally make him the first openly gay athlete in that league. Johnson’s case provided a reminder of how sports can lead, rather than follow.
Such was Johnson’s power as a player that he enlisted the NBA to support him in his announcement. Lakers teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was by Johnson’s side at his press conference, and then-NBA commissioner David Stern was also on the dais, speaking at length after Johnson ceded the stage.
“He asked for the support of his teammates, the Lakers, and the League, and I think what the doctor has said is true. Everyone has said this is a very courageous, heroic person, and a heroic act,” Stern told reporters. “I think what this means to the NBA is another one of our really, idols, and attention-getters has indicated that he’s human, something has happened to him that can happen to everybody.”
That did not mean that Johnson’s return to basketball after his admission went smoothly. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone told reporters that he thought the routine small injuries players experienced during games put them at risk for HIV transmission as long as Johnson was on the floor (he later apologized). Other players and general managers, to whom the New York Times granted anonymity, also suggested that he was a health risk on the parquet.
But in rejoining the league, Johnson’s presence forced the league to develop protocols to treat players’ minor routine injuries safely. Stern supported his comeback. And the NBA Players’ Association emphasized that sports conduct was not a transmission vector. At his press conference in 1991, Johnson emphasized that he would not be forced out of basketball, even if he could be only a highly visible fan, though he hoped to be an owner someday.
“It has happened,” he said at the time. “But I’m going to deal with it, and my life will go on, and I will be here enjoying the Laker games and all the other NBA games around country. Life is going to go on for me, and I’m going to be a happy man.”
At the news conference, Lakers doctor Michael Mellman told reporters that simply by revealing his status, Johnson had made an important impact.
“He is not a person who is invisible,” Mellman said. “And because of his presence, because of his potential impact on society, with a situation which is not only serious, but for which we are all at risk, I think he should not only be commended, but held as a modern-day hero. And I hope that we in our activities, and the impact that it has on us, reflect that. This is a very, very special person and a very, very special admission.”
That announcement alone would have been significant. But Johnson’s career as an advocate, and his determination to live his life in defiance of what the public believed to be true about HIV, began with his 1991 press conference rather than ending there. In the decades since, Johnson has become not just a happy man, but an important one. I doubt Donald Sterling can say the same about himself today.
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