The sports world was turned upside down 19 years ago Sunday, when Magic Johnson retired suddenly because he was HIV positive. It was a giant wake up call for those of us who follow sports religiously that real life could smack us in the face at any moment, interrupting our distraction.
I can still remember the exact details of how and when I heard the awful news. I was a sophomore in high school, and after school I walked with my friends over to the mall to hang out. My mom was a hairstylist and worked at a shop in the mall, so I went to ask her for money, a daily tradition. Her first words to me were, "You're going to be sick when you hear this," and she then proceeded to tell me that Magic Johnson had to retire because of AIDS.
The fact that she said "AIDS" wasn't entirely correct -- Magic was HIV positive, which in many, many cases lead to AIDS, but he didn't have AIDS yet -- but that was emblematic of the time. Nobody knew anything about HIV and AIDS at the time, except that it was a death sentence. Magic Johnson, the best point guard in basketball history and my favorite athlete ever, was going to die.
This was heavy news for an idol-worshiping 15-year-old to take. It was like I was in a trance. I remember telling my friends, almost in tears. We were telling as many people as we could, by word of mouth only, since this was before the Internet and before any of us had cell phones. We heard that the press conference was at 3:30 p.m., so we made sure to cram into Foot Locker to watch the press conference.
From the day Magic Johnson stepped onto a basketball court, and subsequently into our living rooms, his smile and personality commanded the room. But Nov. 7, 1991 was different. There was a somber tone to the press conference at the Great Western Forum, and rightfully so. Rather than smiling, Magic was very serious when he began the press conference, amid the audible clicks of dozens of cameras, saying "Because of the HIV virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today."
I was in a trance for the rest of the weekend. The announcement came on a Thursday, and as far as I was concerned school should have been canceled on Friday. Nothing else was on my mind except for Magic. I remember my friend Esfandiar ending a presentation in European history class by saying "peace to Magic Johnson." Magic was on all of our minds.
Last week on Twitter, a trending topic was #TweetYour16YearOldSelf. I did not submit an entry, but a great one would be "Don't worry, Magic Johnson will be okay." I wasn't quite 16 yet, but I'm sure in 1991 I wouldn't have believed that Magic Johnson would be alive in 2010. Not only is Magic alive, 19 years later, but he is thriving.
Magic has been a successful business man in his post-playing days, owning several companies and even starting his own investment group. He has opened several retail stores -- movie theaters, coffee shops, gyms -- in urban areas, and has profited quite handsomely from his efforts. I had the pleasure recently to hear Johnson speak at a conference in Southern California, and he spoke of his business philosophy. He mentioned that a key to his success was to always over-deliver on his promises.
On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson did not see his diagnosis as a death sentence. He said at his retirement press conference, "I'm going to beat this, and I'm going to have fun." That might just be the most over-delivered promise Magic has ever had.