The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives are comparing unvaccinated Kyrie Irving to Magic Johnson and HIV. Critics say that’s rooted in myth.

Magic Johnson after the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. (Jon Soohoo/NBA Entertainment/Getty Images)

Hours after all-star Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving opened up about his decision to remain unvaccinated and miss games and practices until he fulfilled New York City’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, he found support from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Greene (R-Ga.), who has promoted coronavirus misinformation and was temporarily suspended from Twitter after she falsely said that vaccines are failing, focused on what’s become an anti-mandate talking point for conservatives in the culture war that is Irving’s vaccination status ahead of the NBA season. To do so, Greene referred to a different public health crisis involving another dazzling point guard from decades earlier.

“The fascist NBA won’t let Kyrie Irving play for refusing a vaccine,” Greene tweeted Thursday. “But yet they still let Magic Johnson play with HIV.”

The comparison involving Johnson, who shocked the world in November 1991 when he announced that he had contracted HIV, has picked up steam among conservative politicians and pundits in recent days as the story surrounding Irving has garnered national attention.

Lavern Spencer, a Republican congressional candidate in Florida, tweeted that Johnson had “FULL-BLOWN HIV” when he was allowed to play.

Clay Travis, founder of the conservative sports site OutKick, echoed the sentiment. “This is all madness,” he tweeted.

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But critics and former NBA players and coaches say that the comparison trumpeted by conservatives is rooted in misinformation and myths. They say it’s an effort to co-opt arguments made in the Black community during the pandemic as their own — using athletes from a league that they have taken aim at for years. Donald Trump Jr. said this week that Irving has “sacrificed” more than former NFL quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, a longtime target of his father. Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Thursday night touted recent vaccine comments from Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, the same person she once told to “shut up and dribble” whenever he talked about politics.

The comparison from conservatives ignores how the coronavirus is airborne and can be spread through respiratory droplets, while HIV is contracted through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as semen and blood. When asked during the beginning of the pandemic about similarities between the coronavirus and HIV, Johnson noted that the viruses were “completely different.”

Greene and others have blamed Irving’s situation on the NBA — a league that does not have a vaccine mandate but had roughly 95 percent of players vaccinated as of the end of last month. The league, however, is requiring teams to comply with local mandates, such as the one in New York City that requires everyone to have at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine to go to restaurants, bars and public indoor venues. The citywide mandate includes Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home of the Nets.

Sean Marks, the franchise’s general manager, said Tuesday that Irving, who was eligible by league rules to play in road games in cities that do not have vaccine mandates, would be kept away from the team “until he is eligible to be a full participant.” Irving said his decision was a “personal choice” made without political motivations.

“The NBA is not keeping Irving from playing,” tweeted former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy, adding this about Greene: “Shocked MTG didn’t understand that. She always seems so well-informed.”

A spokesman with Greene’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. Spokespeople for Irving and Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Jemele Hill, a contributing writer for the Atlantic, told The Washington Post that the efforts from conservative politicians and pundits to politicize Irving’s vaccination status and compare it to the Los Angeles Lakers legend contracting HIV were “either stupid or … purposely, willfully and dangerous ignorant.”

“There is nothing about what is happening right now that has anything to do with what Magic Johnson went through,” Hill said. “These are not the same.”

AIDS/HIV had killed more than 14,000 people in the 1980s. As the Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley wrote in 2016, early on there was so little information on the virus fueling the epidemic that people “didn’t want you to kiss them on the cheek.”

Then, in the fall of 1991, Johnson, one of the world’s most beloved athletes, returned to Los Angeles after a trip to Paris to find a shocking result from the physical he had taken weeks earlier: He had HIV. He was retested, and the same result came back. Johnson, who had been a bachelor until he was married that year, said he got the virus through heterosexual contact, according to the 2012 book “Dream Team” by Jack McCallum.

On Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson announced he had contracted HIV and was retiring from the NBA, effective immediately. President George H.W. Bush called it “a tragedy,” and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings sadly noted how Johnson, an American idol, had become “a statistic.”

“Was I scared? No question about it, I was scared,” Johnson told the NBA in a 2016 interview. “I wasn’t scared to announce it. I wasn’t scared of the media. What I was scared of was, ‘Would I see them again?’”

Johnson had become the face of HIV in the United States and began advocating for people to practice safe sex. He described this to McCallum as both a blessing and a curse.

“The blessing was that I came out and announced and everybody started talking about AIDS openly, maybe for the first time,” Johnson said. “Then the curse came because kids started saying: ‘Oh, I can get it and still be like Magic. He’s all over the place. He’s doing fine.’”

Johnson was still eyeing playing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the “Dream Team,” the greatest assembly of basketball talent ever put together. Before then, he was given clearance by doctors and a special dispensation from NBA Commissioner David Stern to play in the league’s 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando. Public health officials, AIDS experts and Johnson’s agent had concluded that the risk of transmitting the disease on the court was “infinitesimal.”

But there was some pause from those around the league. Mark Price, an all-star guard from Cleveland, said hesitation about playing against Johnson was “in the back of every player’s mind.” Don Chaney, Houston’s coach at the time, said Johnson shouldn’t play “if there’s a risk at all,” according to McCallum’s book. Karl Malone, an all-star forward from Utah, said there was no way he would feel comfortable bumping up against someone with HIV.

“If I can get in a collision with a guy — it don’t have to be Magic, it can be Joe Schmo — but the fact of the matter is if you got the AIDS virus it would be hard for me to play as hard as I’m capable of playing,” he said at the time. “If people can’t respect my decision, that’s tough.”

Joe Kleine, who played in the league between 1985 and 2000, told The Post how playing against Johnson was not a concern for the majority of the league.

“I remember talking to our team doctor about it, and he said, ‘Joe, you’re more likely to get hit by a train than you are of getting HIV from Magic Johnson,’” said Kleine, who was playing for Boston at the time. “We were all ignorant of what was going to happen to Magic. Everybody thought it was a death sentence.”

At the All-Star Game in February 1992, Johnson received a two-minute standing ovation and flashed his trademark smile to the fans. He received hugs from teammates and opponents, some of whom had tested negative for HIV beforehand, McCallum reported. Johnson put on one of his most memorable performances, a 25-point, nine-assist showing en route to MVP honors.

Following a gold medal in Barcelona that summer, Johnson flirted with a full-time return during the 1992-1993 season. Malone, his Olympic teammate, was vocal about Johnson coming back.

“Just because he came back doesn’t mean nothing to me,” Malone told the New York Times in the fall of 1992. “I’m no fan, no cheerleader. It may be good for basketball, but you have to look far beyond that. You have a lot of young men who have a long life ahead of them. The Dream Team was a concept everybody loved. But now we’re back to reality.”

Johnson retired again before the start of the season, acknowledging that Malone’s comments, and the sentiments of a few others, hurt him.

“I played with the guy [on the Olympic team] for three months,” Johnson told Newsday in November 1992. “We were hanging out. We were practicing against each other, and just out of respect, he could have said, ‘I’m uncomfortable with it.’ We sat and had dinner two or three times. We talked about business another time. We used to go and lift weights. There was all this time, then, bam!”

Randy Pfund, who had just taken over as the head coach of the Lakers at the time, told The Post he was surprised by Johnson’s move to step away again after having played in the All-Star Game and Olympics.

“I never understood why after playing on the Dream Team he quit so quickly when a few people questioned [whether] he was putting others in dangers by playing,” Pfund said. He added, “To this day, I do not know who convinced him to quit.”

Johnson eventually returned to the court one more time, playing in 32 games for the Lakers during the 1995-1996 season. When it came time for the playoffs, Chucky Brown, who signed with the Lakers shortly after Johnson’s abrupt retirement and was playing for the Houston Rockets by then, said guarding Johnson was not an issue.

“I had no reservation or thought of anything in playing against him,” Brown said. “What happened to him was a shame, but what tells you the most about him is he didn’t ask for any sympathy. He continued with his life.”

Johnson retired for good in 1996, saying he was “going out on my terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992.” He would later express regret in not continuing to play, knowing that being on the court with HIV was not putting other players at risk.

“If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have retired,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “But I didn’t know that then. And you’ve just got to go with what happened.”

Reflecting on the ongoing comparisons between Johnson and Irving, Hill said it was disappointing that Johnson’s HIV diagnosis has been dragged into a game of “political football” by some conservatives targeting coronavirus vaccine mandates.

“Maybe Kyrie is not aware. I don’t know how he couldn’t be,” she said. “But he is being used.”

Ben Golliver contributed to this report.

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