20 Years Ago Today: Magic Johnson Announces he’s HIV Positive

In lieu of the regular season, Laker Nation has decided to take you back through Laker history to recap important games, record-breaking performances and memorable news from the past 64 years of the franchise. We understand that it’s not the basketball you may have been hoping for, but for the time being, it’s the closest we’ll get to reading about the Lakers on a basketball court.

NOVEMBER 7, 1991
MAGIC JOHNSON ANNOUNCES HE’S HIV POSITIVE, RETIRES FROM PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL

At the start of the 1991-92 season, Magic Johnson, then 32, was underpaid. With five titles, he wasn’t one of the top-paid players in the NBA with a $2.5 million salary; he wasn’t even the highest paid Laker on a team that had just gone to the NBA Finals with a 31-year-old point guard and new head coach.

Because of the salary cap in place, owner Jerry Buss could only pay Johnson in the form of a $3 million loan to supplement his salary. However, Buss’ advisors suggested that he take out a life insurance policy on Johnson as protection against the loan. The only necessary step in taking out the life insurance policy was having Johnson take a full physical. Naturally, Johnson agreed.

The results of the physical would reveal that Johnson had contracted the HIV virus.

Johnson would request a second and third test to confirm the results, then holding a press conference the day following the third test on November 7, 1991. Owner Jerry Buss, NBA commissioner David Stern, then-Laker GM Jerry West and teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabaar would be in attendance to support Johnson for the announcement. At doctors’ requests, Johnson retired from the NBA at age 32, vowing to become an advocate and public spokesman of the disease.

Photo by Stephen Dunn | Getty Images

At the time of Johnson’s retirement, team doctors had no expectancy of how much time Magic had left. While there were expectations that Johnson would be able to survive for more than a decade with regimented medications and healthy lifestyle, there was no way of knowing how fast the HIV virus would react with Johnson’s body. Johnson’s doctors prohibited him from playing basketball for the Lakers, and, at the time, in the 1992 Olympics, citing that the physical nature of the sport and its conditioning would be too taxing on Johnson’s body and would make him more susceptible to weaknesses in his immune system.

For the Lakers, the unexpected retirement of Magic Johnson would send the roster into a period of upheaval, as the Lakers would drop 15 games in the win column from the previous year to finish the season 43-39. Mike Dunleavy, then coach of the Lakers, would leave at the end of the season to coach the Milwaukee Bucks, and the “devastating” loss of Johnson would force GM Jerry West to begin rebuilding the Lakers in the following years.

Since his retirement, Johnson has been the main speaker for the United Nations World AIDS Day Conference in 1999, served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, and has agreed to partnerships with drug firms to cut AIDS rates among African-Americans by 50% by the year 2014. Johnson’s advocacy work over the last 20 years began with the creation of the Magic Johnson Foundation in attempts to address the educational, health and social needs of urban communities.

Quote of the Night: “What we have witnessed today is the courageous act by a very special man. He is not compelled by any legal descriptions or legal requirements to disclose what he has disclosed today. He is not a person who is invisible, and because of his presence, because of his potential impact on society, with a situation that is not only serious but for which we are all at risk, I think that he should not only be commended but held as a modern day hero.” – Dr. Michael Mellman, then-Lakers’ team physician.

James Cypert is a news and feature writer for LakerNation.com. When he's not perfecting his ill-advised Kareem-style sky-hook, you can find him on Laker Nation or follow him on Twitter.