August 14, 2009
I never thought I'd see this celebration. You probably didn't either.
At least not on the day that shook us to our core nearly 18 years ago - yes, 18 years! - when Earvin (Magic) Johnson told us he was HIV positive.
On Nov. 7, 1991, America thought it was looking at a dead man holding a news conference.
Instead, Magic turns 50 today.
Where were you when you heard?
I remember as if it happened this afternoon. Actually, I heard before you. I was an editor at Sports Illustrated and about three hours before the nationally televised announcement, a source close to Magic informed me the three-time MVP "has AIDS." (He was wrong, of course, but it shows we were still learning the language of HIV and AIDS.)
Because we were still in the media dark ages -- before Twitter and websites -- I couldn't break the story. Heck I couldn't even tell anyone at SI because everyone was out to lunch. When my editor returned we both sat in his office stunned.
Then we watched, and while no one said it aloud, almost everyone thought Magic would soon be dead.
Of course we now know that being HIV positive is not a death sentence, and that's in part because of Magic.
In fact, he stands as one of the most significant figures in the evolution of HIV/AIDS. His contracting the virus took the disease out of the closet and put it smack in the middle of the kitchen table.
Suddenly, we were talking to our friends about HIV/AIDS.
We were talking to our neighbors and co-workers about HIV/AIDS.
We were talking to our kids about HIV/AIDS.
But Magic's most vital impact on HIV/AIDS isn't because he contracted the virus, but because he lived with it.
He lived as he always did -- with his head high and with that smile.
He made myriad public appearances in an effort to educate us about HIV/AIDS, as did his wife, Cookie (pictured with him, above, on "Oprah").
And he continued to win. In fact, his success with the multifaceted Magic Johnson Enterprises has made him one of the few recent pro athletes who's made more money in retirement than he did as a player.
He's alive today because of advances in HIV treatment, a disciplined diet and undoubtedly his own positive attitude.
He's been a model for many infected by HIV and an inspiration.
Today, as Magic celebrates, it's appropriate to consider where he stands among the most influential athletes ever.
Not whether he's the best point guard ever (duh) or the best player (many whisper yes). But where he ranks among those athletes who not only were among the best in their sports but who also moved the needle beyond the field or court or ring or rink.
Here are my Top 5:
1) Muhammad Ali
2) Jackie Robinson
3) Billie Jean King
4) Earvin (Magic) Johnson
5) Babe Ruth
Each of the top four had an impact beyond the playing field. They changed us, often at some personal risk or cost. Babe made baseball big time.
My next five:
7) Joe Louis
8) Wayne Gretzky
9) Bill Russell
10) Tiger Woods
Happy 5-0, Magic. Not just because you're here, but because you helped us grow, in ways we never thought we'd see.
Photo courtesy the Oprah Winfrey Show
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