It was an extraordinary performance, almost surreal in the way so weighty a matter was dispatched with such incredible lightness. On Nov. 7, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, one of America’s most beloved athletes, called a nationally televised press conference to say he was quilting basketball because he had contracted the virus that inevitably leads to AIDS. “Sometimes we think only gay people can get it,” said Magic, 32. “Here I am saying it can happen to anybody—even me, Magic Johnson.”
If Johnson seemed supremely composed, his message left much of America anxious. Suddenly, heterosexual transmission had a name and a face that everyone knew; if this could happen to Magic, millions of people concluded, it could happen to me. AIDS hot lines across the U.S. were deluged. One month after Magic’s announcement, the federal Centers for Disease Control said inquiries to its toll-free AIDS line were holding at 25,000 a day—compared with 3,000 a day previously. Requests for HIV tests increased 60 percent in the New York metropolitan area, and as much as tenfold in some smaller cities. Even Wall Street took notice: The stock of condom manufacturer Carter-Wallace jumped 3 percent in the trading session the day after Magic’s disclosure.
Initially, Magic found himself enshrined as a hero. The New York Times ran an editorial titled MAGIC JOHNSON, AS PRESIDENT, praising him for providing AIDS leadership where George Bush had not. Bush himself joined the admiring chorus when he appointed Johnson to his National AIDS Commission. But soon Johnsons critics, noting his admitted promiscuity, began to speak out. Tennis star Martina Navratilova said if a heterosexual woman had cut Magic’s erotic swath, people would call her a slut. Some religious and political Leaders objected to Johnson’s dwelling on the condom as a way to avoid the AIDS virus. “Abstinence,” said Dan Quayle, is still the best policy.
Responding swiftly, Magic altered his message, telling kids the safest sex was no sex at all. Then he proceeded to get on with his life. Reportedly in good health now, he began AZT treatment aimed at preventing the virus from replicating and reaffirmed his plan to play in the ’92 Olympics. He continues to run four miles a day and is preparing for the birth of his first child with his new wife, Cookie, 32, who so far has tested HIV negative. Above all, he is approaching this new challenge with his old intensity. He spoke on TV with his friend Arsenio Hall and Connie Chung (to whom he admitted his promiscuity was “morally wrong”), appeared frequently at AIDS events and NBA games, formed his own AIDS foundation, began a $4 million autobiography and went to work on a guide to sexual behavior, with ex—Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. On the basketball court, no one ever used the clock better than Magic Johnson. It was somehow reassuring, even with his own time running out, to see him directing traffic and setting up a hoped-for final shot against a new and implacable opponent.