© Meg Oliphant - Getty Images Magic Johnson bravely faced down HIV/AIDS and brought confidence and illumination to an issue that was shrouded then shrouded in mystery. Here's why he's a Men's Health legend. At the time of that hastily scheduled news conference on November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson, 32, was one of the most recognizable stars of the NBA. Though intense, he played with an almost reverential joy. A former NCAA basketball champion (Michigan State) whose on-court battles with arch-rival Boston Celtics superstar Larry Bird had invigorated the league, Johnson was a three-time MVP, five-time NBA champion, and 12-time All-Star.
It’s hard now to imagine the context of his announcement. During the moralistic Reagan-Bush years, HIV/AIDS was still little understood by scientists or the public. The disease was believed to be fatal. (A few weeks after Johnson’s announcement, Freddie Mercury would die from complications resulting from AIDS.) In America, about 35,000 people died from the disease that year. And in 1992, AIDS was the number-one cause of death for men between 25 and 44.
Fear and misinformation abounded. Some believed it was a “gay disease” and a sign of God’s wrath. It was not uncommon at the time to hear of people unwilling to dine with, shake hands with, or share gym equipment with people who had tested positive. When Johnson announced his return to the NBA in 1992, some players voiced concern about catching the disease.
Yet from the moment Johnson stepped to the mic to reveal his secret, he seemed as affable and relatable and, well, magical as always. He brought home the point: If this popular hero could have AIDS, couldn’t anybody? “I’m going to be a spokesman for the HIV virus,” he told the assembled.
Thanks to medical advances, Johnson has been able to keep his promises. More than 1 million Americans are now living with HIV, and the latest drugs suppress the virus so that many patients can stay healthy and not transmit the disease. (That’s many, not all: About 6,500 people die from AIDS every year.) Nearly three decades later, Johnson, 59, is a little beefier than in his playing days and busier than ever. He is the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, a billion-dollar conglomerate that invests in malls, movie theaters, and restaurants. His charity work focuses on health, education, and HIV/AIDS. Already a part-owner of the Dodgers, he last year became president of basketball operations for the Lakers.
Because of Johnson, the public opinion of HIV/AIDS was forever changed-a reminder once again of the powerful role our athletic heroes can play. By sharing his health and personal life, Johnson performed a bit of his own special magic, dropping a public-service dime, so to speak, and bringing to the mainstream the message that HIV/AIDS threatened us all and that we needed to be courageous. For the past three decades, we’ve thrilled at Johnson’s survival, and at that of countless others who may not have lived had society-and medical science-not heeded his call.
Video: How horse therapy helps HIV and AIDS community (NBC News)
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