One generation knew exactly where they were when they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My peers know where we were when we learned of the death of President Kennedy. Likewise, I know exactly where I was on November 7, 1991. I was head of public relations and communications at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and one of my employees came into my office and said, “There will be a press conference in an hour. Magic Johnson has AIDS.”
Of course, that was part of the misunderstanding at the time. Johnson did not have AIDS. Rather, he would announce that he was HIV-positive. But the feeling was the same, that this was the announcement of a death sentence.
Or was it? When the press conference took place, Johnson was… well he was Magic. He was as calm, composed and charismatic as ever. He announced he would be retiring from the game, and that he “would be a happy man.” To the rest of us, it sounded like whistling past the graveyard. We all knew better. We knew the time would come when the HIV virus would overtake him and lay waste to that magnificent body and dominating spirit.
Except it didn’t.
On this 20th anniversary of that announcement, Magic Johnson is still with us. He returned to basketball for a brief time, and now the ex-basketball star is a highly successful businessperson, having built coffee shops, movie houses and housing developments. He is also an analyst for the game that transformed him and which he helped transform in turn. Mostly, he is the living embodiment of defiant success over adversity. He is a symbol of living with HIV, the first of many who have gone on to do so. (The magazine Entertainment Weekly used to have an annual feature in which they paid tribute to the performers lost to AIDS in the previous year. Amazingly and gratefully, that has long been discontinued.)
Yes, his money gave Magic Johnson extraordinary access to more medication and treatment than others would normally have. But Johnson has other extraordinary capabilities that mere money cannot bestow: a spirit and can-do attitude that made him believe the unbelievable. That he could beat the scourge of his era and make us believe that others could beat it, too. So on this anniversary, let’s think beyond Magic Johnson and consider those seemingly impossible things we can accomplish if we believe we can, just as Magic declared that he “would be a happy man.”