When Magic Johnson announced to the world on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had contracted HIV and would immediately retire from the NBA, most fans viewed the news as a death sentence for one of the top five basketball players on the planet.
At that time, few people could delineate between HIV and AIDS. Public faces of the disease like Ryan White painfully withered away in front of the nation. And now the man who put professional basketball on his shoulders in the 1980s would likely suffer the same fate.
Three months after his announcement, Johnson was voted by NBA fans to start the All-Star Game at the Orlando Arena. Magic, who had kept up a stringent workout regimen in Los Angeles, professed an interest in playing. Commissioner David Stern gave his blessing and Tim Hardaway graciously gave up his starting spot for the Western Conference.
Public reaction was mixed. Medical experts took to the airwaves to say that there was little in the way of risk for Johnson. But under-informed players, most notably Karl Malone and Magic’s former Lakers teammates Byron Scott and A.C. Green, stated that they didn’t feel safe bumping and sweating with someone who was HIV-positive.
Nonetheless, on Feb. 9, 1992, Johnson was set to make his 12th all-star appearance. NBC trumpeted the event as the swan song for one of the game’s all-time greats. In the pregame show, Bob Costas and Quinn Buckner discussed the risks of Magic playing in the game. Dick Enberg chimed in with a pensive piece – set to the strains of Michael Bolton’s “Back On My Feet Again” - in which Magic tried to ease concerns with his soothing smile.
During introductions, Johnson was the last player to take the court. He received a minute-long standing ovation, and every member of the Eastern Conference team came over to hug him. Magic was visibly moved as NBC’s cameras focused on him during the rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by the ubiquitous Michael Bolton.
Fittingly, Johnson got the ball after the opening tap, but he immediately forced a bad pass that was picked off. Magic also missed his first shot. However, he grabbed the rebound and was fouled on the put-back. He sank both free throws to rousing cheers from the fans.
The pace of the game began to pick up, and Johnson looked like he was keeping up. Isiah Thomas blew by Magic for a coast-to-coast layup, but Johnson immediately got the ball and sprinted back for a lay-in of his own. There was no doubt that Magic could still play when he dropped in a sky hook over Thomas on the right baseline. After the first quarter, Johnson had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
Magic played down low in the second quarter and sank another hook on the block against Dennis Rodman, then the premier defensive forward in the game. For a few retrospectively poignant minutes, Johnson was guarded by first-time all-star Reggie Lewis. Back then, fans thought that Magic wouldn’t be alive much longer, but they couldn’t have guessed that Lewis would tragically pass away the next year because of a heart defect.
On paper, the West was inferior to a powerful East team that boasted Thomas, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. But the West was galvanized by Magic’s presence and bolted to a 79-55 lead at halftime. Steve “Snapper” Jones interviewed Johnson on the bench during the second quarter, and Magic reassured the nation that it didn’t have to worry about him in this game.
Johnson had 16 points at the break but, surprisingly, did not have an assist. That changed in the third quarter, when Magic reverted to “Showtime” form. He hit David Robinson with a spectacular over-the-head pass for his first assist, and then found Chris Mullin for an open jumper. Johnson finished with nine dimes in the second half.
With the West winning, 115-83, after three quarters, the end of the game was set for a Magic takeover. In the final three minutes, Thomas, then on good terms with Magic, and Jordan each cleared out one side of the court to take Johnson one-on-one. Magic stayed tight on both players, who each missed mid-range jumpers. It has never been disclosed whether those supremely gifted offensive players eased up on Johnson, a notoriously poor defender.
On the offensive end, Johnson banged home a three-pointer from the wing, then added another from the same spot on the next possession. With under a minute left, Magic threaded the needle to find a streaking Dan Majerle for a layup. On the West’s last possession, Magic dribbled until the end of shot clock, then launched a step-back three over Thomas.
Johnson knew the shot was good as soon as it left his hands, pointing to the crowd as he headed down court. Orlando Arena erupted and the East players didn’t even inbound the ball despite there being 14 seconds left in the game. Instead, they mobbed Magic at center court. There would be no counting votes to determine the MVP of the West’s 153-113 victory.
Fans thought this might be the last chance to see Magic on the hardwood. Instead, Johnson played for the Dream Team in Barcelona that summer. He was back with the Lakers in the next preseason, but retired again before the real games began. Johnson returned to the Lakers twice more – once as interim coach in 1993-’94 and 32 games as a player in 1995-’96.
Along the way, Magic took to his role as ambassador for HIV/AIDS education, and blew away previous misconceptions about the disease. It hasn’t all been positive, as Johnson’s ardent declarations that he isn’t gay always seem to have an underpinning of homophobia. But for that one night in Orlando, Magic made a scared public believe that there was hope.