This piece originally appeared in The Griffith Review in 2008
Many things changed for me on November 7, 1991. I was ten and watching Magic Johnson speak at his most famous press conference.
‘Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to announce my retirement from the Lakers today,’ he said.
Magic was flanked by friends and medical authorities and, as he continued the conference dry-eyed, Boston Celtics superstar Larry Bird began crying off- camera. You can pick it up on the tape, as you can pick up the sound of muffled sobs amongst the body of stunned reporters.
‘How long do you have to live?’ Magic was asked by teary journalists. ‘Months? Weeks?’
In 2001, ex-pro basketballer Eddie Johnson wrote of his reaction to the announcement in USAToday: ‘When Magic stated that he was retiring because he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, I just stared at the television feeling numb, not hearing anything he said afterward. I just fell back on the bed, tears flowing, wondering how this could happen to this special man who always seemed to have destiny on his side.’
At the time of the conference, Magic Johnson was one of the most famous men in America. He had played twelve seasons with the slick Los Angeles Lakers, appearing in nine championship play-offs, and winning five of them.
‘Magic Johnson’s greatest contribution to basketball is that he freed up the mind of every big man who has ever played the game,’ said George Raveling, head basketball coach at the University of Southern California. ‘Big men were always discouraged to handle the ball or improve their ball-handling skills. He demonstrated that they could handle the ball. He revolutionised the game. He made other superstars better.’
He also made the league better – when Magic and his great friend and rival Larry Bird turned pro in 1979, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was on the cusp of bankruptcy. A decade later, the league was enjoying an enviable popularity and profitability, fortunes largely ascribed to Magic and Bird.
After Magic’s announcement, the National AIDS Hotline received 40,000 calls in one day, up from its daily average of 3,800, and shares in Carter-Wallace Inc., makers of the popular Trojan condom, increased by US$3 when Magic announced he would become a spokesperson for safe sex. In outer Los Angeles, a sixty-seven-year-old retired nurse, Irma Reed, was interviewed in one of Magic Johnson’s shopping centres. ‘I’ve been crying for two days. Everyone is devastated for him and his whole family,’ she said.
In New York, one doctor said that it felt like every guy in the city who had had unprotected sex was calling in asking for a test, and with good reason: Magic’s announcement marked the moment AIDS was consummated within the American popular imagination. In another hemisphere, I too responded deeply to the news, but for very different reasons. Twenty-four-hours before Magic’s press conference, I had been sexually abused and thought – incorrectly – that I had contracted AIDS just like my idol.
In the 1980s, Magic Johnson was the conductor of ‘Showtime’ – the LA Lakers’ ostentatious but highly successful brand of basketball, a style that attracted the glitz and glamour from LA’s other showy institution, Hollywood. The Lakers were LA, and Magic was the personification of ‘Showtime’ – all flash and charm and Greek ability. He made a fortune. He was America’s golden boy, and within the dizzying milieu of LA he used his fame to fulfil his many libidinous fantasies. And why not? He was Magic Johnson, the tribal chief of US possibility.
Magic’s press conference announced the end of the party and it deeply rattled America’s confidence. In other words, Johnson’s retirement forced this contemplation: it was Magic’s celebrated participation in the bright-wheel of LA that would kill him. It was a tough lesson to learn. AIDS was not limited to poor blacks and gays, but could in fact strike at the heart of the American Dream.
At ten, I knew nothing of the American Dream, and I knew less about men’s erotic fantasies. Before November 7, 1991, Magic was a simple icon for me – a perfect figure defined by his time on the basketball court. Basketball, and the American league especially, had secured a place in the hearts and minds of many Australian schoolboys like me, and my obsession with the sport was the source of endless angst for my mother. My bedroom wall was covered in posters – Magic, Jordan, Bird – and occasionally my parents would come in while I was at school and try to reclaim some of the paint. I am still reminded of the indignation I felt when the secret removal of a David Robinson poster was discovered.
Attached to my wardrobe was a small, home-made hoop: a plastic container that once contained potato salad and had been shorn of its base and attached to a backboard and a piece of cardboard lovingly decorated with felt-tip drawings of teams’ insignia. An old onion sack provided the material for a net, while two pieces of paper, scrunched-up and strengthened with layers of adhesive tape, gave me a ball. The care and attention spent cultivating my obsession with basketball eclipsed the care and attention I’d shown anything else in my life. I have never demonstrated as much ingenuity in the face of scarce resources as I did back then when, not able to afford replica players’ singlets, I would make my own out of Dad’s old Bonds underwear and fabric paint.
There were three full-sized basketball rings on our tiny street, and every afternoon some of the kids in the area and I would transform someone’s driveway into a basketball court. My stunted height prevented me from enforcing much of a physical presence, so I played the top of the key in the role of point guard: the dribbler, the play-maker. Yes, in my little street I was Magic Johnson, and the most painful part of the day was when the sun began to set and our parents called us all in, leaving us to play out imagined scenarios with our paper balls in our bedrooms. But Magic Johnson was to assume a graver importance when, the day before his press conference, an older neighbour led me into an empty house on the street and removed my pants. Amusingly, his fumbling and fondling was to take place very near a basketball hoop, but it would prove to be almost two decades before I could appreciate the vague irony.
His requests for a mutual appreciation were reluctantly agreed to but not much else is remembered: the moment has registered itself more as a series of visceral and existential upsets – queasiness and guilt – rather than physical activity. It is difficult to avoid using platitudes when speaking on the vagaries of memory. Suffice to say that I recall the remainder of that day passing with a chill air and a succession of storm clouds. I did not tell my parents. For a number of years I had nightmares, but I cannot say whether I had any that first night. In fact, I cannot say what that first night was like because I don’t remember it, but I can tell you this: I mistakenly believed I had contracted AIDS.
For a ten-year-old child who has yet to have ‘that talk’ with his parents, the spectre of AIDS was impossible to negotiate. Before that day in the abandoned house, I had seen plenty of AIDS awareness commercials on television. In one, AIDS was consecrated in the image of Death; his victims were lined up, bizarrely, as pins at the end of a long bowling alley. Death picked up his bowling balls, blithely sending them down the alley, toppling men, women and children. I was a child, and so much more sensitive than my parents. I could hear the whisperings of this nightmare plague everywhere. I was terrified and convinced, by the commercials and the lewd gossip in the playground, that AIDS was a bully who punished sexually deviant behaviour. I was sure that what had gone on in that empty house qualified me for a painful death.
November 7, 1991. I’m at school and the news is everywhere. Magic Johnson has AIDS. Magic Johnson is a faggot. Magic Johnson will die. I will die. That day went slowly. For hours, the facts were stretched and skewed by malicious imaginations and I desperately wanted to get home and hear it from the television. My father came to pick me up. I wanted to ask him whether he had heard the news — if it was true. But I didn’t ask him a single thing. I thought displaying an interest in Magic’s story would betray what had happened to me the day before. When I got home, I went straight to my room, flicked through old magazine articles on Magic and waited for the evening bulletin.
I swallowed hard when the network’s theme song swelled. It was six o’clock. I was sitting at my mother’s feet. And there he was: Magic. ‘This is not like my life is over because it’s not,’ he said. ‘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.’
It was true. Magic was HIV positive. But he had promised us that he would not die, and so he had promised me that neither would I. Sitting on the rug that night, I felt Magic Johnson transformed from a figure of a publicly shared idolatry to a figure of immense hope, and clandestine worship. Certain as I was that AIDS struck only those who had been ‘bad’, I knew that somewhere behind Magic’s famous smile there was a corruption, but I guess I thought it was only slight. More importantly, I had a role model, and in his future press conferences I had a doctor and a father and a friend. I really felt this to be true. We were aligned, in vague and terrible ways, through our disease.
And so from then on I became mindful of infecting my younger brothers and sisters, and I avoided using cups in the house, choosing instead to gulp from the tap’s stream. Sometimes, in occasional fits of melancholy, I would deliver grand farewells to friends in my head, and at night there were always the sweats. But there was always Magic too, and he stuck around for the next two years or so before I discovered I was not infected – that, in fact, I could never have been infected. My parents never knew the heights of relief I hit then. They never knew any of it.
In 2003, a news report began circulating around the world’s electronic inboxes. Purportedly from CNN, the report read: ‘Former LA Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson is in a coma tonight at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and is not expected to live. Johnson, forty-four, is suffering from complications related to HIV, and internal bleeding, a spokesman for Johnson’s attorney told CNN.’
It was a famous fake. In reality, Magic is a walking testament to the effectiveness of antiviral drugs, enjoying a level of health above that of your average man or woman. Magic’s health is also testament to the fact that if you have millions of dollars, being HIV positive needn’t be a death sentence, and while the pandemic still rages in sub-Saharan Africa, America still enjoys Magic as the tribal chief of US possibility – if you have the cash, then you can do anything.
Since then, Magic has been involved in Democrat politics, throwing his weight behind Phil Angelides in the 2006 Californian gubernatorial. Throughout America’s urban areas, Magic-developed Starbucks, theatres and private banks can be found. His name is on many TGI Fridays, and in 1998 he had his own short-lived talk show, The Magic Hour. It is believed that Magic has earned much more money since his retirement than during his time at the Lakers, and now he travels around America giving keynote lectures on business to minorities and saying things like, ‘Idolise your hometown business hero, not the jump shot’.
I left Magic some time back. I can’t be sure when, exactly, though it became clear to me I couldn’t have contracted the virus. I started to breathe a little easier, marvelling at the ascendancy of another great ‘baller – perhaps history’s finest – Michael Jordan.
I spent much of my time dedicated to collecting Jordan paraphernalia: a small assortment of trading cards, a Jordan mini-ring on my cupboard door, and pages and pages of cartoons and short stories I had created which featured him. I had forgotten all about Magic.
I’m thinking about Magic now as I look over the city from my office window. Should I make a small, silent apology for my fickleness? I’m thinking about that smile of his, and the charming, handsome face; his togetherness at that press conference. He was a special man, no doubt he still is.
I think things worked out for both of us.