Monday, November 07, 2011

Twenty years ago today...

...the notion that HIV was a "gay" disease was destroyed.

Perhaps for good.

November 7, 1991 was supposed to be a typical today for a 23-year-old radio reporter living in southern California. The late morning and early afternoon was supposed to be spent at the practice headquarters of the Los Angeles Raiders. There, I'd be getting interviews in advance of the Raiders' game against some team I now don't remember that would be played a few days later.

And then everything changed.

The Los Angeles Lakers had called a media conference and a major announcement was going to be made. Shortly after, one of the reporters covering the Raiders received a telephone call. A few seconds later, he hung up, turned to anyone who would listen and said, "Magic has AIDS. He's retiring."

Verbal responses ranging from "that's not funny" to "no (expletive) way" exploded around me. At some point over the next few minutes, I had confirmed that there was indeed going to be a media conference and indeed it was to announce the unthinkable -- a straight man, an athlete!, had HIV.

A couple days ago, TIME magazine took a look back on what the night of Nov. 6 and the morning of Nov. 7 had been like for people within the NBA and Lakers' family.
...Earvin "Magic" Johnson, then 32, stepped in front of the cameras to address the world. "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained," he said, "I will have to retire from the Lakers." That day, NBA commissioner David Stern, who sat next to Johnson at the press conference, should have been in Utah to announce that the 1993 All-Star game would take place in Salt Lake City. Instead, after hearing a quivering Lakers general manager Jerry West deliver the news over the phone the previous night, Stern — who, like many, thought Johnson was going to die — took an early plane from New York to Los Angeles. On the longest of flights, Stern, who still calls that day the worst of his tenure as commissioner, remembers "thinking about how people within our sport might react to the fact that I was heading out to LA to give someone support who was HIV positive, which had been demonized."
As I stood in that conference room filled with reporters, players and others, one thought kept running through my head: 'I'm looking at a dead man.' That's was the prevailing wisdom (if wisdom is the correct word) at the time -- HIV =AIDS = death. No way around it. Johnson was going to die.

Later, and after I had filed multiple stories and sent multiple snippets from the press conference, I sat in the media section of the Great Western Forum. My eyes kept glancing to the wall where the Lakers' many championship banners were hanging. Images of Johnson in those many playoff games flashed through my memory. And I kept thinking: 'The man is dead. It's only a matter of time.'

Twenty years later, Johnson is very much alive. I admit, even now, I find that surprising.

I defer to the people who understand science and medicine to explain the many advancements in understanding and combating HIV and AIDS. In many countries, however, ignorance remains. Fear is the partner of ignorance, and certainly fear and ignorance existed 20 years ago.

Johnson's legacy of course will include the contraction of HIV which cut short his amazing NBA career. But perhaps more importantly, his legacy will include that HIV was not just a "gay" disease and it was not equivalent to a death sentence.

With all due respect to Johnson the athlete, the preceding paragraph is far more important.

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