Magic Johnson film: how views of HIV have changed since 'The Announcement'

Magic Johnson narrates 'The Announcement,' an ESPN film about his announcement 20 years ago that he had been diagnosed with HIV. The film comes at an important time, experts say. 

Joe Kohen/AP
Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson attends the premiere of ESPN Films 'The Announcement' in Los Angeles March 6.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson played on five National Basketball Association championship teams, was the league’s most valuable player three times, and was a 12-time all star. All of which fed the otherworldly astonishment that accompanied his announcement on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had been diagnosed with HIV and was retiring in his playing prime from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now, more than 20 years later, Mr. Johnson narrates a documentary on the subject that includes a “who’s who” of NBA stars past, from Larry Bird and James Worthy to Karl Malone and Jerry West. The film premiered Sunday on ESPN and is scheduled for 12 more showings through April 14.

Johnson has been applauded for being the first African-American to put a face on a disease that was initially stigmatized as being linked with homosexuality but has since spread across Africa and throughout some parts of the African-American community.

"This 20-year anniversary is absolutely a milestone. At the time, this was an absolutely unique event,” says Jorge Parada, director of infectious disease and prevention at Loyola University Health System, via e-mail.

Underscoring the continued need for the awareness that the film raises, a March 8 study shows HIV rates for urban black women are five times higher than estimated. The study looked at six urban areas considered HIV hotspots: Baltimore; Atlanta; Washington; New York; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; and Newark, N.J. Overall in the US, 66 percent of the women diagnosed with HIV are black – nearly 15 times the figure for white women.

“This film couldn’t come at a more opportune time,” says Amy Nunn, a medical sociologist at the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, who studies race and HIV in American cities. “HIV testing is the most important tool we have to fight this.… Magic Johnson, by being so well-liked and respected, is helping to provide a model to youth who think it’s uncool to be tested.”

In the film is footage of the historic press conference and comments by former Lakers coach Pat Riley. “I just hung up the phone and leaned back and said, what did I just hear?” says Riley in the documentary.

In a statement, Connor Schell, the vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films, explained the motivation for “The Announcement”: “I stress in every story to find moments that are truly cultural turning points and drill down into them and say, 'Here’s where things changed.’ ”

The film reminds viewers that at the time, HIV/AIDS was considered a death sentence.

“Even though he’s walking there and standing in front of everyone giving this press conference,“ says former NBA star Karl Malone in the film, “they think their seeing this dead man walking.”

Medical treatment has since made advances in managing HIV, and Johnson remains healthy and active as a businessman and TV sports commentator. Today, the disease has spread beyond the gay community – though there remains a lot of social judgment about it. In this sense, Johnson’s persona and this movie are just what is needed.

“Society is still judging that this has happened because of a lapse of morals,” says Seth Welles, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University School of Public Health. "Magic Johnson, because he is a hero in the inner cities of America, is also well positioned to spotlight the other causes of transmission." 

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