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Magic Johnson’s 30 for 30 Documentary a Sobering Reminder of HIV/AIDS Epidemic
They say Nov. 7, 1991 was the day everyone found out they "knew" someone with HIV/AIDS. That was the day NBA superstar, the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson, held a press conference in Los Angeles to publicly announce he had contracted the virus.
Magic, a former standout at Michigan State, was one of the world's most popular athletes and a global icon. The Lakers legend and five-time NBA champion redefined the game of basketball during his illustrious career. And in November of 1991, he dispelled the stereotype of what someone who had AIDS was or looked like.
Despite that day over 20 years ago, I had already known of someone who had AIDS: It was my father, John, who informed my brother and I a year prior that he had contracted HIV due to unprotected sex, just like Magic.
Finding out the news about both took me by surprise. Both were two of the last people I expected to have the disease: One was my favorite athlete, and the other was someone who was going to live forever. They were supposed to be invincible, especially to a young boy.
When I heard Magic's son, Andre, now 30, talk about his experience Sunday during ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary which featured his father, it reminded me much of my own. I was ridiculed by classmates and my friends' attitudes changed toward me once they found out about my father. I grew up in a small town outside of Flint, Mich., and not many talked about AIDS during that time.
It was a difficult time during my life, and I always wanted to write a letter to Andre Johnson, whom I was sure dealt with similar situations in school as I had. Although his dad was famous worldwide, Andre Johnson was just an adolescent boy living in Michigan like me. I wanted him to know he wasn't the only kid out there whose dad had HIV. I wanted him to know he wasn't the only kid who had to endure the taunts from others.
I kept close tabs on Magic's bout with HIV while doing the same with my father's battle. At first glance, both shared similarities: Like Magic, my father didn't appear "sick." He lived a normal life and, despite having an advanced case of HIV/AIDS, was relatively healthy. We often talked about Magic. It was my dad's way of relating to me. He didn't know much about sports, but he knew I loved Magic.
However, my admiration for Magic quickly turned to disgust. It was the early-to-mid 1990s, and he appeared to be "cured" of the disease that had taken hold of my father's life. My dad was in and out of the hospital, nearly dying twice within a two-year span. Why wasn't Magic "sick?" Why did he remain healthy—able to return to basketball—while my dad took a turn for the worse? It was a tough issue to tackle as a 12- and 13-year old kid.
Meanwhile, I would talk to my father about his recent hospital trips. During a visit, I watched him fill a pill organizer with what had to be at least 20 or so tablets. He was on a strict daily schedule. It seemed like all he did was take medicine. I was baffled, angry and in denial. I remember my father telling me that he didn't expect to live long. But I kept telling him about Magic. Anything was possible for my father if Magic was getting better, I thought.
With the advent of better drugs in 1995 and 1996, Magic's health continued to rise. My dad's health improved, too, just a few years after he nearly died in the hospital from pneumonia-like symptoms. I became more optimistic about my father and Magic's chances.
Because of a conversation with my dad, I converted back to a Magic fan. I was an angry kid who didn't understand Magic's story, and my father told me that it made no sense to hold ill will toward one of my basketball heroes. It was a sensitive issue for me. My dad didn't hate Magic, so there was no logical reason for me to do so, said my father.
Magic's story serves as a reminder that HIV is still an issue to address. He said that society needs to become once again "scared" of the disease, despite his good health. He described his outcome as a "blessing and a curse." And I agree with that. While he seemingly conquered HIV, it was still a disease to be taken seriously, he said during the documentary. According to reports, there are over 30 million infected worldwide. Not everyone survives 20 years with it. Magic is one of the fortunate.
My father died Dec. 23, 1999, a week before my 18th birthday. Unlike Magic, my dad had full-blown AIDS for nearly 10 years. Thinking of Magic's announcement always stirs emotions—it reminds me that no one is invincible. But it also reminds me of how much more aware we are today about AIDS, and that's partly due to Magic.
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