Ball Don't Lie

BDL at the Movies: 5 thoughts on ‘The Announcement,’ the story of Magic Johnson’s HIV disclosure

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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Magic Johnson announces that he is HIV-positive. (Getty Images)

I'd wanted to do a full-on review of "The Announcement" ⎯ ESPN Films' latest documentary, which revisits Magic Johnson's watershed Nov. 7, 1991, revelation that he is HIV-positive ⎯ in time for its broadcast premiere Sunday night at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN, as I've done for a handful of other hoops-focused documentaries over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, the end of the week got a little hectic, which led to some scrambling and the scuttling of some best-laid plans. So, no full review this time around.

On the other hand, I don't want to give the work of Brooklyn-born filmmaker and journalist Nelson George short shrift, leave readers that dig these documentary pieces hanging, or come away from all that watching, note-taking and thinking empty-handed. So in lieu of a full review, here are a handful of thoughts about "The Announcement," which you can check out tomorrow night. (These were supposed to be brief thoughts, but they are not.)

We'd love it if you'd share your take on the doc in the comments, at the Ball Don't Lie Facebook page or on Twitter, whether by reaching out to me or to our @YahooBDL account.

1. "The Announcement" feels sort of rigid and didactic, which is kind of the point, but is still a bit of a problem.

The documentary has dual aims, one micro and one macro. On one hand, George wants to examine the lead-up to, events surrounding and aftermath of Johnson's announcement, as told through interviews with the principals involved in the story ⎯ Johnson, his wife Cookie, his close friends, his teammates and his doctors. On the other hand, the filmmaker wants to use the 20th anniversary of Johnson's nationally broadcast press conference announcing that he had contracted HIV and was retiring from professional basketball as an occasion for reflection on the impact the megastar's disclosure has had on the fight against AIDS.

On the latter score, it also espouses a pretty clear viewpoint that's given voice by Johnson late in "The Announcement" ⎯ that despite that impact and the near-incalculable distances traveled in myriad areas in the two decades since Magic spoke, AIDS is still terrifying, deadly and all-too-common.

Johnson calls himself perhaps as much a curse as a blessing for the public perception of HIV, lamenting those who use the fact that he's still thriving 20 years after diagnosis as an argument for engaging in risky behavior ⎯ hey, Magic's still alive, so why not?

"We need to get back to being scared again, where we change the mindset and the attitude," Johnson says.

In a Q&A posted on ESPN's Front Row blog, George notes that 50,000 to 60,000 Americans a year still become HIV-positive, an incidence estimate backed up by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The problem is particularly acute in the black community, George says, where HIV infection rates in some neighborhoods "can be as high as 6 percent of the population."

Refocusing viewers on the gravity of the AIDS epidemic, especially in communities of color, is certainly both valid and valuable. It's also something of a personal mission for George, who wrote and directed the 2007 HBO original picture "Life Support," based on the life of his sister, Andrea Williams, who learned she was HIV-positive in 1993. George interviews Williams in "The Announcement" about how her diagnosis led her to become an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and how Magic's announcement changed the way the general public looked at people with AIDS. (In the cut I saw, it wasn't mentioned that they were related.)

The story is told clearly and in a straight line, with the message strongly delivered. At times, though, that can leave "The Announcement" feeling a bit clinical ⎯ sort of a one-by-one, domino-style progression of things happening until we reach the end of the line, rather than a rich narrative unfolding and revealing itself in unexpected ways.

It's by no means bad; if anything, it's just unlucky, coming as it does in the wake of other, more immediately compelling recent hoops docs like "Unguarded," "Once Brothers" and "No Crossover." On top of that, it's done no favors by the section on Johnson's announcement in the 2010 HBO documentary "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" being exquisite and emotionally gripping. This telling offers much more varied and detailed perspectives on Magic's announcement, but that doesn't change the fact that, at base, this is a story we've heard told really well before.

2. While the story itself is one we've heard before, the reminders it provides are important.

Again and again in "The Announcement," we are reminded ⎯ through archival footage, through interviews and through anecdotes ⎯ of the fact that the world has freaking turned in the space of 20 years, in areas like treatment, life expectancy and, perhaps most of all, attitudes toward the virus.

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Members of the Firefax High School basketball team listen to the radio broadcast of Magic's announcement. (AP)

In the late 1980s and early '90s, people thought you could catch AIDS from an HIV-positive person's sweat. They threatened HIV-positive children and threw them out of classrooms, comparing them to loaded guns that could "go off" on other kids at any time. They thought that AIDS was exclusively the province of gays and addicts, and that having it was evidence of on-high judgment of one's chosen lifestyle. (During one voiceover segment, Johnson, who narrates the documentary, sums up: "It's sad to say, but back then, AIDS was a disease that other people had." The "other" is exemplified in stock footage of two men walking with their arms around one another's waists.)

This isn't the 19th century, or back in World War II, or in the era of Ward and June Cleaver. This is when "Seinfeld" started. That's how close we are to a time when we treated sick people like lepers and lessers, when we were scared beyond the telling of it, when we knew not what we did. That's staggering. It's worth remembering that.

3. It's exceedingly difficult to imagine something like this happening this way now.

In case you forgot ⎯ or you were nine years old at the time and not super interested in non-cartoons, like Your Man ⎯ the timeline at work here is absolutely mind-blowing in retrospect:

Oct. 25, 1991: Magic has just come back from honeymooning in Paris with Cookie and is getting ready for a preseason game against the Utah Jazz. While he's taking a nap in Utah, Lakers team physician Michael Mellman (also Magic's personal doctor) calls to tell him he must fly back to L.A. He does; there, he is told that he is HIV-positive. It is reported that he is absent from the Jazz game because he has the flu.

Oct. 26, 1991: Having told his wife about his diagnosis ("The most difficult thing in my life," he says in the film), Magic goes with Cookie the following morning to get re-tested and to get her tested. They are told they must wait 10 days for the results of these tests.

"And we were keeping the whole thing a secret," Magic says in voiceover.

"So he had the flu for two weeks," Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti says in an interview.

Nov. 6, 1991: The tests come back. Cookie's is negative, meaning that she and the baby with whom she has just learned she is pregnant do not have HIV. Magic is confirmed positive, "and it's fair to say that he had progressed quite a bit with the infection," says leading expert David D. Ho, director/CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, who personally ran Magic's tests. Magic is told he can't play in the NBA any longer and that his life expectancy is uncertain. When and how they will tell anyone remains a question.

Nov. 7, 1991: A reporter calls Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen, to confirm a story he's heard about Magic being ready to retire from the NBA because he has contracted HIV. That's when the press conference, the announcement and everything else get set in motion.

That's two weeks ⎯ two full weeks ⎯ from the time that the most famous and popular basketball player in the world got handed a death sentence until the time it titrated out to the public. Actually, that undersells it ⎯ Magic wasn't "just" the most famous and popular basketball player in the world. He was a monstrous star beyond the narrow scope of the NBA, one of the most famous people in general ⎯ a figure whose cultural renown is compared in the film earnestly and favorably to Muhammad Ali.

Given the array of outlets, the intensity of coverage and the democratization of media now, can you possibly fathom 14 days passing between, say, Kobe Bryant learning he has cancer and the news winding up on your Twitter feed? Or LeBron James having a brain tumor? It's inconceivable. Hell, it's difficult enough to imagine in 2012 a world where you wouldn't know that Nikola Pekovic had indigestion 32 seconds after he first farted. And yet, back then, that's what happened. In the No. 2 media market in the country.

4. It's basically impossible to overstate Johnson's role in the personalization of HIV and AIDS, and the difference that made.

I am perhaps too cynical in this context, which bothers me, but I'll own it ⎯ I felt at first like I had to regard skeptically Cookie Johnson's assertion that, when she was unsure about whether or not Magic should go public with his diagnosis, he immediately responded with some Jesus-level unselfishness.

"He just looked me right in the eye and he said, 'I have to save as many people's lives as I possibly can,'" she says in the documentary, before continuing with his remarks: "'People need to know that anybody can catch this disease.'"

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An unauthorized poster hung outside of the Stanford University athletics department on Nov. 8, 1991 in Palo Alto, …

It got a little easier to accept that quote later, when trainer Vitti offered his memory of the moment when Johnson broke the news to his teammates. In a room full of grown men, champions, preparing to hear the worst from their leader, this is what Vitti says Johnson did: "He looked me in the eyes and said, 'When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person.'"

Irrespective of your thoughts on God's role in the process of Johnson contracting HIV, I mean … holy cow. And, frankly, when you look at the last 20-plus years, you'd be hard-pressed to argue otherwise.

Few people in recent American history have existed in as many worlds in as many ways as Magic Johnson did in the early 1990s. He was a Mount Rushmore-level star in a physical, masculine ecosystem that, given its druthers, would have gladly pushed AIDS away as something only lesser forms worried about. He was a matinee idol with a list of endorsements as long as his arm and a top-shelf corporate Rolodex likely worth millions. He had one of the most recognizable faces and smiles in the world. Later, he became a bad talk show host, which is fine, because even the worst talk show hosts still get broadcast into millions of homes every night, and no one loved him less because he wasn't David Letterman. Even after everyone knew he was sick, he became a titan of industry, developing lucrative businesses in a number of markets.
He was a global icon capable of commanding respect and serious attention in a way that few others ever could. And, by dint of circumstances and his own kneejerk response to an opportunity to lead, he became the person you associated with HIV and AIDS. And he made that work.

He raised awareness and millions of dollars for research to develop medications and treatment options. He got cool people in pop culture to start talking about things like wearing condoms and not making sick people into pariahs. He tried working with the George H.W. Bush government on AIDS commissions to help people, and when that didn't feel right for him, he started doing it himself, investing time and money, and trying to be a spokesman in a way that actually got people to try to take responsibility for their own behavior. He did more than just about anyone in the world to get people to realize they didn't have to be scared.

He was, and has been, amazing. Don't believe me? No less a source than fellow Hall-of-Famer Karl Malone says so.

"Tell me one other athlete that could have dealt with it like he did," Malone says in the documentary. "He didn't run and hide. He could have got on his private jet with his family and went and bought an island. … I say he manned up."

The "Tell me one other athlete" part is interesting, because it casts Magic in kind of a peculiar light in which, to be honest, I'd never considered him. Is Magic Johnson ostensibly the Jackie Robinson of HIV?

Could any other major professional sports figure have carried the burden of being The Guy With HIV like that? Could anyone else have so summarily disarmed the public or, when the public wasn't disarmed, worked so tirelessly to continually make people see that you could treat people the same? It's difficult to imagine anyone else doing it, and at such a critical moment in American cultural history, I think it's impossible to imagine anyone else having the level of positive impact on it that Magic could have, and did.

5. On the flip side, Malone and James Worthy do a remarkable job of personalizing the response to Johnson's announcement in different (but arguably equivalent) ways.

In the compilation of reactions to the news that Magic had HIV, a couple, to me, stood out. After Johnson had announced his retirement and gone about the business of figuring out his new life, he was finding that many of his friends and former colleagues, even those closest to him, were uncomfortable with the idea of being around him.

"I asked people, 'Come on, let's work out.' They all had something else to do,'" he says in the documentary. "Or, 'No, I can't right now, I've got to get ready for the game,' or whatever. Can you imagine that? I've played one-on-one my whole life, and now I'm looking for someone to play one-on-one against, you know?"

Given Johnson's role as the primary voice of the film and, to some extent, the aggrieved party, it's tempting to just flip a switch in your head and go, "F*** all those guys. How do you treat your friend like that?" But then, George includes a succinct, fantastic quote from Worthy that lays the fear bare in a way that's not accusatory, but rather merely makes plain an understandable concern, given the relative lack of information available at the time.

"In your quiet hours, you have to come to grips with this, you know?" Worthy tells us. "How do you support someone like this? How do you support someone that you expect to be, you know, 100 pounds in a month? How do you hug that person?"

We get a somewhat less nuanced response from Karl Malone.

"My feeling was, 'Dead man walking,'" the power forward says in an interview with George.

In the aftermath of Magic's announcement, answering questions about his feelings on playing against opponents who might have AIDS, Malone rather firmly said that the prospect of contracting the disease would cause him to play less hard than he would otherwise. Two decades later, he told George that he doesn't regret saying what he said.

"When it blew up like it did, I was still sitting there saying, 'What's the big fuss about?' A lot of people thought it and wouldn't say it. I said it," Malone says. "… Maybe [it was just] me being a country bumpkin at the time, just saying what my grandpa would have said. 'What the hell's going on here? I'm not playing with this guy. You know? This guy here could give me AIDS. I could start shriveling up to nothing.'"

The temptation is to vilify Malone for being that "country bumpkin" and going public with his feelings like he did. But the reality of the situation is, the Jazz forward was echoing the sentiments of the lion's share of the American populace. People were scared, and grossed out, and didn't want to be near someone who had AIDS because they didn't know what the hell could happen. Malone voicing his concerns at least opened up dialogue, to a degree.

And, on the other end of it, 20 years down the line, while he wouldn't regret saying what he said, Malone does recognize the importance of what took place.

"Magic Johnson allowed guys like me to be more educated about it," he says.

That education ⎯ for Malone, and for the untold millions who shared his line of thinking ⎯ is going to be a much longer-lasting legacy for Magic than any playoff performance. (Well, except for maybe Game 6 in Philly.) And Worthy's emphasis on how it can be difficult to relate in a complicated situation, even to someone you know well and love dearly, is some real talk that will simultaneously resonate with audiences and make audiences re-examine their own relationships with friends and family. Could you just open-arms accept that news from a loved one? Could any of us?

AND-ONE: David Stern offers a reminder of why he is very often my favorite person to watch on television.

OK, this is cheating, and I'm sorry. It also has relatively little to do with the narrative thrust of "The Announcement," which perhaps makes it extraneous. Still and all, though, the fact is that it has become very easy to dislike NBA Commissioner David Stern in recent years, especially in light of the lockout. While those feelings (hell, my feelings) are valid, it is also wonderful to be reminded of the fact that David Stern is an amazing person to watch say things. To wit:

• When asked, in the moments immediately following Magic's announcement, what the news means for the league, Stern didn't bat an eyelash before responding, "What this means to the NBA is that one of our idols is human." It is the perfect thing to say, and he does so effortlessly.

• Asked by George about his memories of the announcement itself, Stern smiles in a way that belies an internal turmoil: "Mostly what I remember is how horribly sad everyone was, except Magic. And it just seemed as though he was putting on a good smile, putting on a good fight. But everyone else believed there that we were going to lose him." We. Stern cared in a way beyond receipts. (Don't believe me? Listen hard to the 1992 All-Star Game MVP award ceremony presentation.)

• On the months-long back-and-forth over whether or not Magic should be allowed to play in that '92 ASG: "I did have at least one owner suggest to me that we should do some polling, because maybe I was getting us too far out front." You won't catch this in print, but oh, man, when you watch it ⎯ his clipped tone, the meter of the remarks, the emphasis on words like "suggest" and "polling" … all of it point very, very strongly toward Stern still harboring at least some resentment toward those who forwarded the notion that the league shouldn't back Magic's play.

• Watch the wattage on the smile Stern flashes as he relates news of top AIDS experts telling the NBA that Magic in the ASG wouldn't pose a risk to anyone. Measure that against the tightness of the smile and the measured headshake that accompanies Malone's public comments: "Central casting, you know? Karl Malone steps up and expresses his doubts."

We may never see another commissioner like David Stern. But I feel pretty confident in saying that we will never see another entity ⎯ player, ambassador, structure ⎯ like Magic Johnson. While not always the most exciting film, "The Announcement" does that reality justice.

"The Announcement" airs Sunday, March 11, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, followed by an encore presentation at 11 p.m. on ESPN2. It's also scheduled to re-air several times throughout the month of March, so check your local listings for those.

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