Basketball superstar has had an up-and-down journey since then as he battles his illness and tries to be a role model

By Michael Sauter
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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The news hit like a slam dunk in the face. On Nov. 7, 1991, barely a week into the NBA season, L.A. Lakers star Magic Johnson called a surprise press conference. He was immediately retiring from basketball, because he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS.

A shock wave spread far beyond the sports world. This wasn’t just any athlete revealing just any illness. This was one of sports’ all-time greats, a superstar who dazzled as much with his ebullient personality as with his no-look passes. Magic was larger than life, and his news was a reminder that anyone can get HIV.

The eternally upbeat Johnson had no interest in playing the martyr. Calling his illness ”another challenge,” he vowed to beat it. It sounded like the bravado of a man used to winning, but three months after retiring, he came back to play in the NBA All-Star Game, wowing a global audience with an MVP performance. Later that year, he joined Michael Jordan and Larry Bird on the Olympic Dream Team that stampeded to a gold medal in Barcelona.

Off the court, Johnson has parlayed his earnings into his own record label, a TV and film production company, part ownership of the Lakers, and investments in movie theaters, shopping complexes, and other retail ventures — most of them built in inner cities. Meanwhile, his nonprofit Magic Johnson Foundation has raised millions for AIDS awareness and research.

Johnson’s post-announcement life hasn’t been one big winning streak, however. In late ’92, Johnson announced his return to the Lakers, only to call it off when some in the NBA expressed fear of HIV exposure. In ’94, he cut short a stint as Lakers head coach, having failed to click with a new generation of players. In ’96, he tried a second on-court comeback but retired again after half a season. This past summer, Johnson failed as a TV talk-show host on his panned The Magic Hour.

He’s also endured serious public criticisms: that his promiscuous pre-HIV lifestyle makes him an iffy role model, that his promise to ”beat” his incurable disease sounds like denial, and that he hasn’t been a visible enough AIDS activist.

To many, though, Magic Johnson’s message remains inspirational: an affirmation that life with HIV is still a life to be lived. ”In the past seven years I’ve been blessed to be able to affect and contribute more to society than in any other time,” says Johnson, now 39. ”Knowing that gives me a good feeling.”

Time Capsule / Nov. 7, 1991

AT THE MOVIES, Disney’s big-budget gangster picture Billy Bathgate, with Dustin Hoffman and Nicole Kidman, opens to lukewarm reviews and a weekend box office take of only $4.1 million. The so-called movie event of the year, based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-seller, finishes fourth, behind The People Under the Stairs, Curly Sue, and Highlander 2: The Quickening. IN BOOKSTORES, Stephen King’s Needful Things follows Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett on the fiction best-seller list. King’s latest book, Bag of Bones, debuted at No. 1. IN MUSIC, Prince’s ”Cream” is rising to the top of the Billboard singles chart. In 1993, he changes his name to [Artist Formerly Known As Prince]. AND IN THE NEWS, Paul Reubens — a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman — pleads no contest to charges of indecent exposure, following his arrest in a Sarasota, Fla., adult-movie theater.

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