I wonder how many people who watch him on TV even remember. We see him yukking it up with Jon Barry on
Awkward Laughing Weekly NBA Countdown on ESPN, reminiscing about days gone by with rival and close friend Larry Bird, but a mere 20 years ago, I thought he’d have been gone by now. Look at me, saying a “mere” 20 years. 20 years is obviously barely a fart in cosmic terms, but it’s long enough for a child to have been born, develop an adolescent fixation on cigarettes, and be legally able to feed the addiction without having to resort to a fake ID. But how it all rushes back when I saw Nelson George’s understated The Announcement, which chronicles the day that Magic Johnson revealed to the rest of us that he was HIV positive. The movie lives up to the quality that ESPN Films has shown in its 30 for 30 series, but George aims a little deeper than most, and we don’t just get a retrospective on the announcement, but an interesting reflection on Magic Johnson’s poignant triumph, which in some ways might not have been a triumph for the battle against the disease.
I remember the day Magic said he had HIV vividly. Really, it was hard to separate it from “Magic has AIDS”. Yeah, I was a Celtics fan, but who could really hate Magic? The smile, the gregariousness. Even if it was a media image, he seemed like the friendliest guy on earth. And for a night, we were pretty sure he only had very limited time here. The footage of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather reporting it – the local media guy sitting waiting for Magic’s presser with his eyes watering, Larry Bird talking about not wanting to play that night – the gravity of the announcement came rushing back. The entire thing now still is pretty amazing in retrospect.
However, what we knew less was what it did to Magic himself. Well obviously he had HIV and that had to be spooky. However, what about Magic having his Magicness pulled out from underneath him? Magic himself in the film never really expresses it so starkly – George leaves those lines for us to fill – but as he recounts his actions and we see him speak, it all sort of came together. Of course, Magic said he would be a spokesman, and then joined George Bush Sr’s panel. What else could he do? He was the world’s most famous HIV patient. But that was not Magic’s gig – and so he drifted. Being an activist/political flunky was not going to fill the hole. When he went back and played the All Star Game though, THAT started to get there. Of course from there, there was the talk show, and the failed comeback, and then the successful one – and only now has Magic seemed to settle into the life and profile that made the most sense for him. He has raised money, but has been a hero to the cause of fighting HIV by simply rediscovering himself, and being Magic the entire time.
However, and this is the most interesting point in the film – was simply being famous enough for him to have done the HIV cause proud? Chris Rock once posited that Bill Cosby did more for black comics by just being Bill Cosby than a more active dude like Dick Gregory. Did that apply with Magic? His journey and the advances in medicine have left him nearly HIV-free. Does that mean, as Andrew Sullivan naively noted, that we are really safe from AIDS now? Sure, HIV at this point is like many forms of cancer now – get it early, attack is sufficiently, you should be able to live a pretty normal life, but that ain’t “cured”. Magic seems to get it – and laments that in his own journey he might have contributed to the false sense of security that folks like Andrew Sullivan can make such a weirdo claim. It does not take much to veer into wacky African politician territory from there. I was expecting a good story about a seminal event of my lifetime, but George has gone one better and provided a meditation on triumphing over HIV, both in a macro and micro way.