Los Angeles Lakers: HIV

Magic Johnson reflects

November, 7, 2011
By the Kamenetzky Brothers
E:60 looks at the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson's retirement.

Remembering the day I heard about Magic

November, 7, 2011
Kamenetzky By Andy Kamenetzky
Nov. 7, 1991.

I was on USC's campus, taking a walk down Trousdale Parkway. I don't recall whether I was headed to class or the Commons (where students typically congregate) looking for an excuse to ditch. What I do remember is that I hadn't been in front of a television or radio all day.

I ran into a friend, an L.A. native, whose typically laid-back body language had been shattered. I asked what was wrong, and he dropped a bombshell.

AP Photo / Craig Fujii
Nothing felt the same after Magic's historic news conference.

Magic Johnson was retiring because he tested positive for HIV. When my friend heard the news earlier from another friend, he'd been wearing a No. 32 Lakers jersey.

For a few minutes, it felt like the world stood still and my school had grown quiet.

I was a sophomore and had only been living in L.A. about a year, meaning I'd yet to become fully engulfed in my Lakers fandom. I also grew up in St. Louis, a city that lost the now-Atlanta Hawks four years before I was born, meaning it was hardly a hotbed of NBA culture. Obviously, I'd seen Magic Johnson play many times. But geography dictated more football, baseball and hockey watched than basketball as a kid and teenager.

Still, the news absolutely rocked me. The gravity of this moment was about more than the premature end of an iconic athlete's career. It was a cultural and societal game-changer. A new face had just been attached to a disease still carrying so many unknowns and prejudices. At the time, HIV and AIDS were thought of as afflictions primarily reserved for gay men, drug users and those outside the mainstream. For many, it was easy to cast those types aside and dismiss any vulnerability toward a similar fate. HIV may have been taken seriously, but for many, it remained somebody else's problem.

Magic, however, was beloved, so much so that some of the reporters covering his news conference actually cried. America had no choice but to view the disease with a sobering new perspective. As Johnson said that day, if he could test positive, we were all susceptible.

I've always felt that Magic's announcement was my generation's JFK moment, powerful enough to make the world feel different, and you don't forget where you were upon such a realization. I recently talked with longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who had been assigned the task of herding Magic's teammates to a meeting where he would reveal his illness. Unable to share details, he simply said the meeting was "gonna change all our lives."

Vitti was right.

Amazingly, what felt like an announcement of death in 1991 has evolved into a signpost for inspiration. He's done important work as an HIV and AIDS activist, while providing an example of how the disease can be managed and lived with. The advantages provided to a man of Magic's economic means are apparent, as well as the battle still ahead for millions dealing with this disease. But there's no denying the hope he's provided over the last 20 years. Initially viewed as living on borrowed time, he's since flourished in health and wealth, launching successful businesses across previously ignored areas of L.A. and turning virtually everything he touched into gold.

He may be remembered first with a basketball his hand, but I'd argue Magic's life has been far more influential after his career ended.
"Listen, I can't tell you what's going on. Just be there. This is gonna change all of our lives."

These were the words of Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti as he instructed members of the 1992 Lakers to attend a mandatory meeting at the Forum on November 7, 1991. Among a select few sworn to secrecy, Vitti couldn't reveal the reason: Magic Johnson needed to tell his teammates about testing HIV-positive. Shortly after, Johnson would tell the world.

Mike Powell/Getty Images
Vitti and Johnson go back a long time in their working and professional relationship.

The day did change lives, and well beyond those in the Laker family.

With Monday marking the 20th anniversary of Magic's unforgettable press conference, I met with Vitti at the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo for his thoughts on the day and its significance. The two have been close friends since 1984 and despite having talked about this period countless times, Vitti still gets choked up reliving it. The details and emotions shared make this podKast truly worth a listen.

You can hear the entire show here, and below is a breakdown of talking points:

(:08) - Vitti's and Johnson's relationship was initially distant, then a bit contentious after the trainer felt the point guard gave him a "snotty answer" to a question. Johnson quickly explained via a smile and a bear he was only kidding around. "That was the moment we bonded," explained Vitti of a friendship now grown exceptionally strong.

(3:13) - Vitti actually figured out Magic contracted the HIV virus before being formally told. The Lakers were in Utah for an exhibition game against the Jazz, and Magic, who'd been experiencing fatigue, was told he urgently needed to return to L.A., no questions asked. Everybody was in the dark and the mystery ate at Vitti. "I just couldn't let it go," says the trainer of the undisclosed issue. "All of a sudden Magic has to go home. It can't be good, right?"

After wracking his brain for days, he suddenly remembered during a game against the Jazz that Magic had taken a physical for a life insurance policy. The light bulb went off, and keeping it together while on the job was a nightmare task.

"That game, Tony Smith, was a second year guard," recalls Vitti. He was having a great training camp and he severely sprained his ankle. Third degree ankle sprain. And he's laying on the table in the training room at the Delta Center and he's very, very upset. He's in tears. And I grab him by the shirt and I say, 'What are you crying about? Because the injury hurts? Or are you crying because you're depressed?' And he just sort of shakes his head. And I said, 'Well, you're gonna get better. You're gonna get better. Some people aren't.'

"No idea what I'm talking about. He looks at me like I've got three heads."

In many ways, however, knowing was just as bad as not knowing. Vitti could tell nobody -- even his wife -- which meant lying to the faces of people like then-head coach Mike Dunleavy about Magic having the flu. Thus, he often had to carry this emotional weight alone.

"We thought it was a death sentence," admits Vitti. "At some point, I'm gonna lose one of my close friends. And not just lose him, but he's gonna whither away in a horrible death."

-(10:15) Thankfully, Magic was around to talk Vitti off the ledge. Crazy as it sounds, that's essentially what happened when the two finally discussed Johnson's diagnosis. Vitti was "a wreck" and Magic remained positive, promising his friend he'd be just fine.

"I don't want you to worry about me," Johnson told Vitti. "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person. I'm gonna do something really good with this. I'm gonna beat this."

Vitti collected himself enough to pledge unwavering support.

"I said, 'I'm with you all the way. To the end. Whatever it takes. If I have to leave the Lakers or whatever you need me for, I'm your guy.' "

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Nick Young
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0