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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Two decades ago in this same city, the NBA All-Star Game went deeper than sports.
Magic Johnson, who just months earlier announced he was HIV positive and would retire from the NBA, returned to the hardwood and forced the league, even the world, to think differently about HIV and AIDS.
The disease had a public face it never had before, and that brought more questions and optimism to the forefront. Questions, like how we can learn more about HIV and how it's contracted? Optimism, like how the disease wasn't a prescription for death and individuals could still live full, athletic lives.
But not all the questions and optimism came willingly. Magic's presence at the game (he was voted in by the fans) was not welcomed by some players, including Karl Malone, who said he worried he could contract the virus by just playing on the same court with Magic. (In the early '90s, some of the uneducated public believed HIV was a quick death for anyone, even someone as powerful as the Magic Man.)
|Magic Johnson was named MVP of the 1992 NBA All-Star Game after scoring a game-high 25 points, including three straight 3-pointers late in the contest.|
"Being voted in by the fans meant the world to me," Magic, a current analyst for ESPN, told Michael Wilbon in an interview on "NBA Countdown." "Not only did I want to play in the game, but I needed it for therapy, just to know in my own mind that I still had it."
Oh, he still had it. In true Magic form, the then-32-year-old went out and dominated the game. He posted a game-high 25 points and nine assists to lead the West to a 153-113 win. His one-on-one defensive play against longtime rivals Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas late in the contest, along with three straight 3-pointers in the fourth, made him the easy MVP pick.
"I think everything happens for a reason, and I believe Magic was the one person who could champion that cause and carry it so gracefully and bring so much awareness to it," Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant told espnW on Friday. "It's amazing to think it's been 20 years."
The game had other poignant moments. A handful of players, including Dennis Rodman, came out to guard Magic as a way to pay tribute and show HIV was nothing to be afraid of."I think it was the night before, I was tossing and turning, and I was praying and hoping that they would accept me, that they would want to play against me," Magic told Wilbon. "[Rodman guarding me told people], 'OK, I am going to show everybody it's OK to play against Magic and nothing will happen to you'.
"It was just a moment that I can always reflect back to, something that makes me feel good about being Magic, about being Magic living with HIV," Johnson added. "And so, it really took care of a lot of fronts with me, showing everybody if you're living with a disease, you can still live a productive life. And then also, too, I showed people I could play in the NBA and play at a high level. Wow, what a moment."
Optimism. And it went beyond the NBA.
Candice Wiggins, who currently plays for the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, said she looked at Magic as a surrogate after her own father, Alan Wiggins, died a year earlier from AIDS. Wiggins' father, a second baseman for the Padres and Orioles from 1981-87, acquired the disease through intravenous drug use and died shortly thereafter. Although Candice was just 5 years old, she remembered how Magic's announcement changed her world.
"While I was sad for Magic at first, seeing him play with HIV was almost like having my father back," she told espnW. "His existence with HIV helped me understand the disease that took my father so quickly and how to cope with his absence.
"When my dad was diagnosed with HIV, my family didn't know anything about the disease except that it was this instant death sentence," Wiggins said. "I just remember my mom being in shock the whole time. But watching Magic live with the disease brought a sense of calmness to my household, which had been in a state of shock since my dad's passing."
|After announcing his was HIV positive on Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson has become one of the most famous campaigners of awareness and tolerance for the disease.|
Since Magic announced in November 1991 that he was HIV positive, he has continued to dispel the myths. He won an Olympic gold medal with the 1992 Dream Team in Barcelona. He attempted two comebacks as a player (Magic played in a handful of preseason games before the 1992-93 campaign, but went back into retirement before the season began; he also played the last 32 games of the 1995-96 season). He also tried a coaching stint with the Lakers in between his two returns as a player.
Magic created the Magic Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit that "works to develop programs and support community-based organizations that address the educational, health and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities," including "raising HIV/AIDS awareness, treatment and prevention."
He also runs Magic Johnson Enterprises, which includes restaurant chains and movie theaters across the country, and recently announced the launch of Aspire, his own television network.
There are perfectly healthy people who will not accomplish in a lifetime what Magic has accomplished since contracting the disease.
"He is a treasure for our league," Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau told us Friday. "Everything he touches turns to gold. He's had a great career as a player and a business owner. He's just a great leader. His return to the game opened a lot of eyes and taught us a lot, and that's what a great leader does."
Although Magic established his legacy on the court with five championships, 10,141 assists and 12 All-Star appearances, it will be how he lived his life off the court that inspires and educates generations for years to come.
"Magic's diagnosis actually put more liveliness in his life," Wiggins said. "It caused him to cherish every day. If people take away anything from Magic's story, it should be to make the most of the time you have."