Magic altered perception of HIV

Basketball was on my mind as I turned on the TV Sunday night, but I wasn’t even thinking about a bracket.

While Selection Sunday was upon us for the NCAA tournament, my mind was at the Great Western Forum, and a speech Nov. 7, 1991.

In its latest production, ESPN Films has created, “The Announcement,” dedicated to Magic Johnson’s battle with HIV.

As I watched the documentary, I thought, “What would this event have looked like on Twitter?” And my stomach churned as I imagined the trending topic #howmagicgothiv. If people were making Godzilla jokes during natural disasters that killed residents of Japan, what would they have said about Magic Johnson announcing to the world that HIV would force him to retire from basketball?

Of course, my reaction at the time wasn’t much better. I heard about it in passing on the Today Show, and never saw the press conference at the Great Western Forum, where the Lakers played. I was in junior high then, so cue the juvenile humor. A smattering of some of the jokes from my friends and I:

• “Oh, you get it from sexual contact? Guess you can cross that one off your worry list, Wilson.”

• “How did HIV get from New York to Los Angeles? Magic.”

But looking back, I’m glad I got to learn about HIV and AIDS in such a public way. I think of the night a college friend told me she was diagnosed with the disease, and cringe at the person I might have been otherwise. Perhaps I’d have had some notion that it was a disease for homosexual men, or that I could contract it by giving her a sympathetic hug. Some friend I would have been.

I imagine we’d have a different NBA as well. A sports magazine polled NBA players soon after, asking if the public reaction would have been the same had an average player contracted HIV. Players said no, with former Seattle guard Ricky Pierce noting it would have more closely resembled, “Get your (expletive) out of here.”

But it was Magic, so we were sympathetic and we learned about the disease. But I also wonder if we got false confidence because Magic Johnson is alive and healthy as ever. I’ve seen a few Facebook friends comment, “Well, if Magic Johnson can beat HIV, so can anybody.”

So, since Magic Johnson — a 6-foot-9 genetic lottery winner once considered among the top athletes in the world, with access to the finest doctors and medications — is doing fine, that makes it a piece of cake for everybody? More likely, it’s still cost-prohibitive to effectively fight the disease for most of the people at risk.

I wish that was a bigger part of the film, but I’d still recommend catching it if you get a chance. It’s airing Thursday, Saturday and Sunday on ESPN2, with a Sunday afternoon airing on ESPN.

Maybe you don’t remember where you were that day. But I’m pretty sure that you’re a different person because of that day. So am I, and I’m thankful.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Clovis Media, Inc. He can be contacted at 763-3431, ext. 313, or by email:

kwilson@cnjonline.com