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20 years later: have we learned anything from Magic's revelation?

11/7/2011, 5:45 p.m.
20 years later: have we learned anything from Magic's revelation?

Today marked 20 years since Earvin "Magic" Johnson held a news conference at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, CA. There he revealed to the world that he had contracted the HIV virus and had to retire from the game of basketball immediately. At the time, it was one of the most shocking revelations in not only sports, but in all of news.

By 1991, Johnson's status as a basketball legend and an A-list celebrity were locked into place. He won four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, starred in many commercials and was an all-around show stopper no matter where he was.

As a 9-year-old growing up in The Bronx, I was one of Magic's admirers even though I wasn't old enough to understand the legend (my father's old VHS tapes of Lakers games broadcast on CBS hipped me to it). Along with Alf, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Jackson 5, a poster of Magic's smiling face lined my bedroom wall (It would eventually be replaced by an image of John Starks' famous dunk from the 1993 NBA Playoffs). Along with Darryl Strawberry and Joe Montana, he was one of the first athletes I pretended to be when playing pick-up games with friends. But that all changed.

While people like President Bill Clinton called him a hero later on in the decade, in 1991 Johnson was viewed as a pariah to some in the sports media. His image of a role model was tarnished. There were rumors about him being gay or bisexual (since HIV/AIDS was still heavily associated with the gay community). The truth was that he had multiple sexual partners and didn't use protection each time. The following year, Bobby Brown had a hit with the song "Humpin' Around" and I overheard adults dedicating the track to Johnson.

As a kid, I wasn't immune to the jokes as well. I recall during a lunch period in fifth grade where a friend and I were reading Nintendo Power magazine. We saw a game review for Magic Johnson Super Slam Dunk for Super Nintendo and noticed that it was made by Virgin Interactive. My buddy and I, in fifth grade, made wisecracks about Johnson having HIV and working with a company called Virgin. While we were luckily not susceptible to the Magic was gay or bisexual suggestions that adults engaged in the years following his news conference, something seeped down to us kids that made us feel it was ok to crack jokes of that nature.

So when I watch that news conference on YouTube, it still makes me cringe. Not because of what had happened to him, but because of my reaction to it. Yes, I was a kid and I learned my lesson, but how many kids - Black kids - followed suit? According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published last year, at the end of 2007 Blacks "accounted for almost half (46%) of people living with a diagnosis of HIV infection in 37 states and 5 US independent areas with long-term, confidential, name-based HIV reporting." In 2006, the CDC said that Black men accounted for 65 percent of all infections among Blacks.

Johnson had sex with multiple partners, but that doesn't mean anything. Johnson didn't always protect himself when he did and that means something. With the term "baby mama" now a part of the American lexicon and paternity tests a never ending source of fodder for Maury Povich, it's forgotten that these men and women engaged in unprotected sex and were irresponsible. While sexual activity can always be a risky endeavor, the stats show that Black men have not valued themselves enough to be as safe as possible.

Although Johnson had to find out the hard way to maintain a healthier lifestyle, it doesn't mean that other Black men should have to learn the same way. Johnson proved you can live a worthwhile life with HIV. It's up to Black men to educate each other and show that our lives are worthwhile as well.