Nearly 20 years after learning that he had tested HIV-positive, and 20 years after his initial retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson has a major regret. He wishes he hadn't retired from the Lakers directly after learning of his diagnosis. And, knowing what we know now about the virus, he's probably right. Magic could have kept playing.
Two things are important to remember, 20 years later. First, to the uninitiated, testing positive for HIV back in 1991 seemed like a sure death sentence. I recall sports-talk radio hosts, not shock jocks, hoping Magic would survive long enough to see his NBA friends play in the 1992 Olympics some 10 months later. Even though a goodly chunk of the public knew that, with proper attention, Magic wasn't putting teammates or opponents at risk by playing NBA hoops with HIV, retirement seemed like the only possible step after a diagnosis like this.
Secondly, though he was by no means the transition demon that helped lead the Showtime Lakers to five championships in the 1980s, Magic was still playing brilliant basketball. He contributed a PER of over 25 during the Lakers' 1990-91 season, a campaign that saw his team fall in the Finals to the Chicago Bulls. Johnson averaged over 19 points with 12.5 assists and seven rebounds a game, numbers made all the more impressive when you find out that the Lakers worked the third-slowest pace in the NBA that season. He wasn't in his prime, but he was just a half of a half-step removed from his prime. And that's Magic Johnson's prime that we're talking about.
Here's Magic's take on his struggle, in talking to the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke, and his regretted decision:
If you'll recall, Magic attempted a comeback during the 1992 preseason, after a star turn in the 1992 All-Star game and his time spent with that 1992 Team USA squad. When fears from other NBA players about contracting the disease became public, Johnson retired again. Magic fully came back midway through the 1995-96 season, and for a 36-year-old sixth man playing his first NBA basketball in five years, he was pretty fantastic -- putting up a 21 PER while dropping nearly 15 a game with seven assists and six rebounds in just under 30 minutes of play. Chafing at his role on a younger Laker team, though, Johnson retired again. Pity, as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant joined the Lakers a few months later.
That should have been the tail end of his career. Not only could Johnson still have played -- and played brilliantly -- but the physical toll it would have taken on his body would be no less severe than the one Johnson (a noted workout fiend since his diagnosis) was putting on his body as it was. It would have helped educate the public at a much faster rate, and we would have been able to see the greatest point guard of all time go out as he should have.
Watch that interview, posted above, again. Johnson has spoken at length on camera about the events surrounding his HIV diagnosis. He remains optimistic and buoyant.
Regarding his retirement, though -- have you ever seen Magic Johnson so mournful? So down?
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