By Jeff Labrecque
November 07, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST
Craig Fujii/AP Photo; Paul Spinelli/AP Photo

The story goes that the United States didn’t really wake up to AIDS until Rock Hudson went public with his deadly illness in 1985. But even though Hudson’s passing gave the growing epidemic a celebrity face, there remained a popular misconception that AIDS was a disease only homosexuals had to worry about — until Earvin “Magic” Johnson stood in front of a microphone on Nov. 7, 1991 and announced to the world that he had contracted HIV. For me and my collegiate peers, Johnson’s announcement made an enormous impact. For the students in my freshman dorm, the immediate question was, “How?” How could this happen to Magic Johnson, the athletic, charismatic basketball god who’d led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles. Our second thought was that he’d be dead before Christmas.

We had grown up with AIDS, so we weren’t completely ignorant of what it was and how it was spread, but there remained such paranoia and misinformation. Recall that in 1985, the Screen Actors Guild insisted producers tell actors if roles required open-mouth kissing because some people feared the virus could be spread through saliva. I remember grownups in my New Jersey town who feared that mosquitoes could transmit the disease.

Johnson’s revelation was a game-changer because it forced everyone, from playboy athletes to college co-eds to face facts. You — I — can get AIDS from unprotected sex. At first, ugly, common prejudices molded the conversation. Was Johnson gay? Or was he a drug addict? Rumors grew loud enough that Johnson felt the need to clarify his sexual preference on the Arsenio Hall show. Worse, the audience applauded when he told them, “First of all, I’m far from being a homosexual.” Such was 1991. (In 1992, when Johnson returned to the court, opponents such as Karl Malone expressed a reluctance to play against him due to health concerns.)

Ultimately, though, Johnson became an effective ambassador for AIDS education and prevention. Just being “Magic” made people view the illness more humanely, and his relative good health 20 years after being diagnosed serves as an inspiration to those who share his condition.

Do you remember where you were when you learned that Magic Johnson had contracted HIV? What kind of impact did the news have on you?

Read more:

EW Archives: Magic’s Bombshell

EW Archives: Arsenio Hall Gets Down to Business