In a luxury suite far above the court, the man with the familiar incandescent smile and the endearing straight-from-the-belly laugh once again was directing traffic and commanding the room.
Here, this is how we should pose. You guys over there, give your camera to somebody and come on up. Let’s keep it moving.
Isn’t that how it should be: Old point guards don’t die, they just find a new stage.
Except that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was supposed to die. That’s what he thought, that’s what everyone who was reached by the world of basketball thought nearly 20 years ago when Johnson announced he was HIV positive.
A young boy in Spain was no different than many here.
“I was 11 years old at the time,” said Pau Gasol, the Lakers forward who grew up in Barcelona. “It had a huge impact on me. At the time, all I knew about AIDS was that it equaled death. One of the best players in the history of the sport that I loved was going to die. That’s what I thought.”
But here was Johnson on Sunday night, shaking hands and posing for pictures, looking and sounding as vibrant and full of life as in the days when he and Larry Bird carried a league to relevance on the sheer force of their personalities.
Nowadays, the well-wishers often do not look up to Johnson because of anything he did on a basketball court. Typically, it is because of his efforts as a businessman, investing in African-American communities, or his work raising awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
Sunday’s reception was sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which presented Johnson with its inaugural “World AIDS Day Magic Award.” World AIDS Day is Wednesday.
“Who would ever have thought that somebody would admire you and it’s not about basketball,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I haven’t played in 15 to 20 years and now when people come up to me it’s never about basketball. I guess I’ve turned the page on another chapter in my life.”
It began when Johnson met Elizabeth Glaser, the wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser and an early AIDS advocate who was dying of the disease, shortly after his announcement in November 1991. Glaser begged Johnson to become the face of the disease.
Johnson not only became a spokesman for treatment of the disease, he also founded the Magic Johnson Foundation, which has worked to promote more testing and give minority communities better access to treatment. Johnson has lent his name to five clinics that AHF has opened around the country in mostly African-American communities.
In recent years, Johnson has been criticized by some AIDS activists for not making his presence felt as strongly as he once did. He sounded willing to do so Sunday.
“We will continue to fight,” Johnson told the crowd of about 50. “We still get discriminated against, especially if you’re black and brown. But we’re in it until the end. Hopefully one day there will be a cure and we don’t have to worry.”
HIV/AIDS has hit blacks disproportionately hard. They account for more than half of new cases, according to Michael Weinstein, the president of AHF, and too often they are in the later stages of the disease, making the outcome grim.
“A lot of people can’t afford to buy their drugs or leave their community to go get tested or get the proper health care,” Johnson said. “We have to educate people, especially in the black and brown community. That’s been my focus through the last 10 years, through the churches, through the schools and through the colleges as well. The numbers are too high. When you think about the new cases, more than 50 percent are African-American. We’ve got to bring those numbers down and work on the stigma as well, (plus) the it-can’t-happen-to-me (perception).”
The message he wants to get out on World AIDS Day is to get tested and get informed in what is an evolving battle. Johnson noted that when he announced he was HIV positive, there was one available drug, AZT, for treatment. Now there are 30.
“A lot has changed,” he said.
Including the NBA’s involvement. When Johnson made a brief return from retirement after revealing he was HIV positive, Karl Malone, then one of the league’s star players, said he feared being infected by Johnson. Others also expressed concern, more quietly, in what became a white-hot topic.
Now the NBA meets with each team during training camp to discuss HIV and AIDS, and has sponsored a “Get Tested” campaign. Johnson was joined at a clinic opening in North Miami Beach by Alonzo Mourning and taped a public service announcement with Yao Ming for broadcast in China. Gasol has traveled to Angola and South Africa to promote AIDS awareness, an interest he relates to Johnson’s announcement.
The importance of the athletes’ involvement cannot be understated, but it is Johnson who can carry a torch.
“He’s the ultimate symbol of living well,” Weinstein said, noting that the more people who see Johnson living well and beyond expectations, the more it might spur them to get tested, to get treatment or to get educated.
And for those who do, it will bring an air of satisfaction to Johnson, the kind of feeling an old point guard can take great pleasure from — a most meaningful assist.