Magic Johnson Changed America Forever

In an age of diminishing activism in sports, Magic has had indelible power

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Magic Johnson salutes the media before announcing his retirement from basketball after testing positive for HIV, Nov. 7, 1991.

The narrative is well-worn like a shoe with a hole: the modern athlete lacks the political spine that previous generations showed. The Black American athlete in particular has historically been a revolutionary figure, demanding rights, challenging norms, reshaping America like activists in shorts. I’m talking about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommy Smyth, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, and others. Who’s taken up that mantle nowadays? Anyone? Republicans buy sneakers, too, as Michael Jordan said, so why risk making potential customers uncomfortable by using your status to improve the nation? But there is one contemporary athlete who’s a social activist on par with the past legends who straddled sports and politics. Magic Johnson, an activist in the personal-as-political sense, did something radical and necessary that altered America forever. He changed the way we see AIDS.

(WATCH: 10 Questions with Magic Johnson)

Magic the player did not seem to suggest the activist who was coming. He was too much of a happy performer to signal that. He played during the rise of hiphop, when the air was filled with the defiant spirit of Run-DMC and revolutionary energy of Public Enemy. But Magic recalled Louis Armstrong by playing like a genius while smiling wide and bright. Yet maybe the roots of Magic’s more political period were there all along. He was a leader. He was a revolutionary—he changed the way the point guard position was played. He was someone who brought people together—not just his teammates but the whole building. And, Magic was a crossover star loved by people who were non-Laker fans and non-basketball fans. I wonder if God thought, Who could get this virus and somehow turn it into a blessing? Magic sensed that He had. Shortly after he was told he was HIV positive he said, “God gave me this disease. He gave it to the right person.”

(PHOTOS: Magic Johnson: A Life in Sports)

We hear that in a touching, sensitive, gripping new ESPN documentary called “The Announcement,” directed by Nelson George. It premieres Sunday, March 11th and tells the story of Magic and AIDS, a transformative relationship for him and for us. America’s history with the disease can be split into pre-Magic, when hysteria gripped us, and post-Magic, or after his announcement, where we slowly grew into a calmer state as Magic went on living and looking strong and thriving in business and broadcasting and thus humanizing AIDS. This is for better and for worse. “I’ve been the blessing for HIV and the curse,” Magic says. “I’ve raised millions and awareness but then people say, if I get it I could be like Magic. No. They see me doing well and they’re not protecting themselves. We need to get back to being scared.” We do, but we are better for growing past the time when AIDS victims were pariahs. Magic changed that—he put his smile on the face of AIDS.

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He’s an activist who had the cause thrust upon him but you can’t always choose your battles. Sometimes they choose you. The question is how do you deal? Well, like Joe Louis vs Nazis, like Jackie Robinson vs segregation, and Ali vs Vietnam, when it came time to wage Magic vs AIDS, the man battled like a champ. His wife Cookie says in the days after his diagnosis, “He said, ‘I have to save as many people’s lives as I can. People don’t realize this is a disease for heterosexuals. People need to know that anybody can catch this disease. That’s what I have to do.’ ” From the beginning he was tasked with a mission, a contest to win, based on how many hearts and minds he could change. To see Magic now, alive and buff, 20 years after receiving what he thought was a death sentence, is to see a winner who indelibly changed America.

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