July 18, 2011
We're coming up on 20 years since we learned of Magic Johnson's HIV-positive diagnosis, a revelation that not only seems like ages ago, but something from a galaxy far, far away. As many have noted, back in 1991 these sorts of diagnoses were considered near-immediate death sentences; and yet we watched Magic talk all over our TVs throughout the duration of last spring's playoff on ABC and ESPN, and not once were we reminded that Magic is living with HIV. I'm sure the same goes for many of you -- he's just Magic, again.
But what was life like back in 1991, when Johnson first learned of his diagnosis? Laker beat writer Mike Trudell has put together a fantastic question-and-answer session with longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, and in it Vitti details those awful initial days, when Magic and the Laker family as a whole learned that he had tested HIV positive.
We had a good training camp, and then we went to Paris for the McDonald's Cup, and played a couple of games in France. We still had two preseason games left, one being in Salt Lake, and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, against the Seattle SuperSonics before Vancouver had a team. Just before the trip, Magic called me up and said, 'I'm really tired, and with the season coming up, I'd really like to take these last two games off.' I said I'd try to get him out of the games, so I called (then general manager) Jerry West, and Jerry said that Magic didn't have to play in Salt Lake, but that he had to play in Vancouver.
So I told Magic that I got him out of one game, but not both, and Magic said, 'Well if I'm going to go on the trip, I may as well just play in both games.' He wanted to stay home, not go on the trip and not play. So we fly to Salt Lake, and we get off the plane, and as soon as we get to the bus, the driver tells me, 'You need to call the office right away.' So I call, and they said to put Magic Johnson on a plane going home, immediately. I said, 'Why,' and they said, 'Don't worry about it, just send him home.'
The column also interviews Lakers public relations chief John Black, but mostly it deals with Vitti, a longtime Johnson confidante who recalls how "Magic knew how to say the right thing to each person."
It's a great read, about a dark time.