Magic Johnson’s influence, 20 years later

Magic Johnson is alive. This is incredible. For those of us who were around on the day he announced that he'd been diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, this is a wonderful thing. And while we're encouraging others to discuss their own experience with Magic's disclosure two decades ago in both the comments section and anywhere else, his current stature given his generation-long diagnosis reminds of how things can get much, much better.

Magic hasn't beaten anything. His financial status has clearly led to his own sense of physical well-being, and his positive take on all things both dear and dreadful can't help but keep him turning in the right way from day to day, but he's also made it so we think about 97 things every time we see Magic on TV before we remember that he has been stricken with HIV. Apologies to turning it back around to me, but for a whole generation of people my age, the idea that Magic Johnson would be around and Magic-ish as ever in 2011 -- to someone that was around in 1991? It floats around the idea of hoverboards and DeLoreans that can transcend time.

Because, to a lot of us, Magic wasn't supposed to make it this long. My ignorant hope, upon learning of his diagnosis two decades ago, was for Magic to make it to the 1992 Finals to take on a ceremony of sorts. That was my initial flash -- that I'd hoped he'd make it seven months. I was 11, I was and remain a moron to this day, but I wasn't alone even amongst people two and three and four and five times my age.


It was a different time. The documentation of Ryan White's plight did very little to teach those who weren't paying attention. In some quarters the idea of sexual education being taught in schools wasn't as much treated as abomination versus edification, but as an affront and an abomination all its own. Dare we found out what the urethra was. Beavis and Butt-head were still a few years away from saving us.

And HIV? That meant "AIDS." And "AIDS," I'm sorry, meant "gay." And a lot of us watched Magic Johnson "reassure" Arsenio Hall's audience a few days later about how not-gay Magic was. And even as someone who knew next to nothing about the civil rights struggle that gays and lesbians had been fighting through for decades at that point, Magic's macho dismissal still felt off-putting.

Then you grow and learn. And you meet people who were diagnosed with HIV back when it was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Then, a few weeks later, a singer you're barely familiar with passes away (keep on, Freddie) from an AIDS-related illness. And years later his work turns into one of the things you can turn to when nothing seems to be going right. Decades later, to the day, it remains the same.

Magic lost the "no homo" nonsense. He came back to win the 1992 All-Star Game MVP, and prepare for his starring role on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Forget being wheeled out to take in rapturous applause during the 1992 Finals -- Magic Johnson called that series on national TV. Months later, he attempted a comeback. In February of 1996, he played again with the Lakers for a few months. Few remember and even more dismiss it, but he played brilliant, brilliant basketball in any context. Imagine an in-prime Vlade Divac, minus 50 pounds, a decade's work and 3,200 packs of cigarettes. Then give him handles. That was Magic Johnson in 1996. He was fantastic.

It's 20 years later, and it doesn't mean anything. It means everything, and nothing, all at once. The original point of this post was to present the anti-tribute, to share a YouTube compilation and keep on as if he were just any other player that retired 20 years ago. Ideally, this is how these things should work.

Magic Johnson has never worked amongst the idyllic, though. It would be a disservice to his legacy and to his influence to point out that merely 20 years later, the guy really could throw a charming look-away pass. It would be wrong and disingenuous and cheap to pretend that his diagnosis, 20 years on, isn't as big a part of the man as is his five rings as a player and continued basketball impact.

Magic Johnson taught a lot of us how to grow up. He taught a lot of us how to stop working around the fringes and actually ask questions. To dismiss hearsay and innuendo and actually attempt to figure these things out for ourselves. Did Magic personally challenge most of us to attempt that work on our own? Hardly. He's made his mark, his work has made a difference, but he was about as ready for his diagnosis as we were.

His reaction isn't the point. Ours, individually, is. We can talk about how much Magic "humanized" HIV, dragging the diagnosis into our living rooms via someone we've known for decades. There is value in that, but we were all going to get there at some point. Such is the sadness of this disease.

What Magic allowed us to do was to question our own prejudices, earlier than we probably would have. At any age, from any angle, despite any impetus.

That's what a leader does. And we can question Magic's own decision-making as a leader regarding his diagnosis 20 years later, but no amount of criticism would hurt or much less shape his impact. It doesn't work that way when you're the first in an extended family to tell everyone that something's gone wrong, before telling them that something can go right.

This is why Magic Johnson is important. And this is why our own growth and evolution is important. And this is why talking -- and questions and nuance and hope and frustration and heart and pain and exposure and intelligence guided by experience -- is important. Without heaping portions of all the things previously referenced, we fall flat. And we're not flat. There might be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, especially if you have cable, but we're not flat.

Make it one day out of 365, Magic. As you have for 20 years. And understand that, though this virus does not define you, its very diagnosis has changed the lives of millions.

In some columns, a number like that works as a ringer withing an empty statement. In this one? The number might not be high enough.

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