Part of Outsports’ series on our 100 most important moments in gay sports history.
Basketball, 1991: Magic Johnson's announcement on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had tested positive for HIV and was retiring from the NBA was the biggest story in America. Johnson was a superstar -- every network carried the press conference live and it was on the front page of every paper. At the time, HIV was still considered a death sentence and thought not possible for a positive athlete to compete.
Despite being retired, Johnson was voted by fans to the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, where he scored 25 points and became the MVP. But his appearance sparked opposition from some players, most notably Karl Malone, who showed incredible ignorance by claiming he could be infected by playing against him.
Johnson proved an inspiration to people with HIV by playing on the "Dream Team" in the 1992 Olympics, then in the NBA off and on until finally retiring in 1996.
There had long been rumors about Johnson's sexual orientation and the HIV news fueled that further. He always insisted he got the virus from sleeping with women despite it not being a common route for infection. “I’m far from homosexual. Far from it,” he told Sports Illustrated at the time.
In a book written two years ago, Johnson blamed Isiah Thomas for spreading rumors that he was gay.
“Isiah kept questioning people about it,” Magic says in the book “When the Game Was Ours,” written by Johnson, Larry Bird and longtime NBA reporter by Jackie MacMullan. “I couldn’t believe that. The one guy I thought I could count on had all these doubts. It was like he kicked me in the stomach.”
Thomas, who was publicly very supportive of Johnson after he tested positive, said he felt blindsided by Johnson's reaction and that the two never had a discussion about the rumors.
Regardless of how Johnson contracted the virus, he has been a fierce advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, founding the Magic Johnson Foundation. He also came out in 2008 against Prop. 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative in California.
Johnson has been healthy for 20 years, but is discouraged that too many people today see HIV as no big deal:
“I’ll hear people say every so often that having HIV must not be so bad—just look at Magic and how well he’s doing,” says Johnson, who has remained AIDS-free. “I’m blessed that the medicine I take really worked well with my body and makeup. It doesn’t work like that for everyone. A lot of people haven’t been as fortunate as I have.”
Johnson announces he has HIV:
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