Twenty-five years later, it’s easy to watch the retirement press conference Magic Johnson held on November, 7, 1991 to tell the world he had tested positive for HIV and think what he said that day and what he’s done every subsequent day wasn’t that unusual.
We now know that HIV is treatable – if not entirely curable – with a strict regimen of anti-retroviral drugs, but the reason you remember where you were during Johnson’s announcement if you are older than 35 is because that was the day you thought Magic Johnson was going to die.
Back then, most people didn’t distinguish between HIV and the death sentence that was AIDS, even though Johnson opened that press conference by explaining the difference – that he had the former and not the latter. Either way, he was retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers at age 32 – at the peak of his powers – and it sure seemed to an entire generation of fans that they’d not only lose Magic the basketball player but Magic the person.
It turns out that we’d get other glimpses of Johnson on the basketball court – at the All-Star Game three months later, in the Olympics the following summer, even as a Laker four years later – and that we’d get much more than a glimpse of him in so many other facets of life, where he excelled at seemingly everything he put his mind to.
But it should not be forgotten that when he addressed reporters on that November day that he said things he could only hope would turn out to be true. A spin through that 9 ½-minute press conference (below) reveals that Magic went 5-for-5 in making good on the predictions he made for how his life would unfold.
1. “I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys, like (I) always have. So, you’ll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league — hopefully, David [Stern] will have me for a while — and going on with my life.”
Johnson is 57 and still in great health and has had perhaps the most successful post-NBA business career of anyone in league history. He’s been not only with the Lakers and the league, but he’s had his hands in almost every other kind of entertainment and business endeavor you can think of.
2. “I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus.”
Johnson didn’t let the diagnosis define him – he’s talked about it less and less over the years — but he was extremely effective in educating the public on two important facts about HIV: Heterosexuals could contract it just as easily as homosexuals and drug users, and it didn’t have to be a death sentence. Those things weren’t widely known back in 1991, and Johnson’s press conference was a watershed moment in those two things changing.
3. “I will still be pursuing my dream of owning a team, that’s for sure.”
From 1994-2010, Johnson was a minority owner of the Lakers, and in 2012, he led an ownership group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion. So he not only lived that dream – he’s lived it twice. Not to mention, he’s also in the ownership group of Los Angeles’ WNBA and MLS teams.
4. “I’m going to miss them. I’m going to miss coming in at 5 o’clock, I’m going to miss saying hello to the security people when I first come in, then the ushers. … But most of all what I’ll miss is the camaraderie with the guys, being one of the fellas.”
Johnson missed basketball, all right. He made a one-time appearance in the 1992 All-Star Game, winning the MVP award, won a gold medal with the 1992 Dream Team, attempted a comeback in 1992 before Karl Malone and others expressed concern over playing against him and finally returned for 32 games with the Lakers in 1996. He even coached 16 games for L.A. in 1993-94. You can say Johnson was wrong about retiring for good, but he was 100 percent right about how much he’d miss the game.
5. “I’m going to go on, I’m going to beat it, and and I’m going to have fun.”
These were Johnson’s last words before thanking everyone and saying goodbye, and exactly zero of these three things seemed possible when he said it. It’s already been established that he’s beaten HIV in a way that no one before him had, but maybe the most impressive thing is he was right about that last part. Has anyone – since that foreboding day in 1991 – ever seen Magic Johnson not having fun?
gallery: 25 amazing things Magic Johnson has done in 25 years since his HIV diagnosis