Magic Johnson glad he didn't pass up ESPN documentary
Twenty years later, the sentiment at first seems unremarkable. Why wouldn't Magic Johnson say he planned to go on "living for a long time," that he would "beat it" and "have fun"?
So thoroughly has he succeeded that people under 30 must wonder what the fuss was about when their elders talk about Magic Johnson's revelation on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had "attained" the virus that causes AIDS.
That historical disconnect was a key reason that Johnson agreed, reluctantly, to participate in an ESPN documentary, "The Announcement," that premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday. He even serves as the narrator.
His concern was that treatment for HIV has become so effective -- with Johnson as Exhibit A -- that the public no longer fears AIDS as it once did, and often forgets that it even exists.
"This is not something he ever wanted to do, but he was convinced it was the right thing to do," Lon Rosen, his longtime friend and agent, said after a screening last week. "It's off the front pages, and because it's off the front pages, medical science is sort of looking at other things."
Johnson eventually determined he was comfortable with ESPN and the production team, including director Nelson George, whose sister, Andrea Williams, is HIV-positive and an AIDS activist.
The biggest coup was the participation of Johnson's wife, Cookie, who in the documentary speaks more extensively on the subject than she had.
George said he was struck by how much more composed Cookie was as she looked back than were most of the men he interviewed, including Johnson's former Lakers coach, Pat Riley.
The film is loaded with video nuggets from the NBA's archives. One shows Riley, by then the Knicks' coach, working out Johnson, in Lakers attire, at Madison Square Garden after many peers had shunned him. Johnson said it was a day that changed his life. "Gold," George said. "That's just amazing footage."
Most of all, the documentary serves as a reminder of how far public perception and medical reality have come on HIV/AIDS during the past two decades.
Karl Malone, long cast as the villain in the treatment of Johnson, speaks candidly about his initial feeling and his evolution since. Malone was the most prominent of many players who expressed concern about being on the court with Johnson. Rosen said Malone and Johnson have discussed the matter directly, that Malone has apologized and that Johnson holds no grudges.
Magic is not a grudge-holding sort, part of the positive attitude he said helped him last this long.
"I believed it a hundred percent," he said on a recent conference call with journalists, recalling his initial optimism. "I never thought I was going to die . . . So I believe besides the medicine, my mind-set and attitude -- and also working out -- has been the key for me being around for a long time."
The challenge is to make the most of the time few people other than Johnson himself believed he would have.
"It's been amazing how much we have been able to do in these 20 years," he said. "So, yeah, I'm happy about the progress. But we've got a lot of work still ahead."