Former NBA Commissioner Reflects on Magic Johnson’s HIV Disclosure and its Impact on the League
David Stern has been retired as commissioner of the National Basketball Association for nearly three years. But he was head of the NBA for three decades, including the day 25 years ago when Los Angeles Lakers guard and perennial All-Star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he was HIV positive.
With the quarter century anniversary of the momentous day this month, Stern spoke to amfAR about the events surrounding the press conference, his relationship with Johnson and how his league, sports and world have changed since.
An ESPN reporter once described the phone call that you got from Magic’s agent as numbing and thrusting you into the “unfamiliar territory of shock, surprise, and stunned silence.” What was your immediate reaction?
I froze. I didn’t really have an immediate reaction. I had to think about how to respond. It was horrified grief about Magic’s prospects for living. I thought Magic was going to die. Everyone did. That was the nature of HIV/AIDS in this country at the time. I didn’t think about what next steps to take until I hung up.
How would you describe that November 7, 1991, press conference?
I remember being there and Magic saying he was going to step down from playing basketball. He had an unusual usage of words. (“Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers”). The whole thing was so depressingly overwhelming. I can’t even piece it together. It was funereal. Suddenly, the face of HIV was a beloved athlete.
What happened in the NBA in the weeks following?
Things were fast and furious, and they were all clumped together. We hired Dr. David Rogers (then co-chairman of the National Commission on AIDS) as our AIDS expert to come in and tell us what we had to know about this disease. We were talking to our lawyers, to our doctors, to our owners. We put in place infection control procedures. I remember later — in early 1992 — the Australian team announced that it wouldn’t play against the U.S. at the Olympics in Barcelona because Magic was on the team. The next season, Karl Malone announced that he wasn’t going to play against Magic. I couldn’t even give you the order of all those things. It was like a montage. I remember I became more fascinated by Magic’s T-cell count than the score of any game that was being played.
I understand you spent considerable time reading newspaper and magazine articles, medical journals, and talking to AIDS experts. What were you looking to learn?
We didn’t know how many players were HIV positive, whether this was going to shut down the league, whether our fans would be afraid to come to games and sit at courtside. Was Magic the only player who was HIV positive? We didn’t know anything. But we sure had to get on top of it. I learned things that I never thought I would have to know, such as the possibility of HIV passing through fluids, open sores, to get confident that we were proceeding in an intelligent way. Somewhere along the line we realized that this was an opportunity to educate the world and to calm down the fear that anyone with HIV should be treated like a leper.
How much different or more impactful do you think it was for an athlete of Magic Johnson's stature to disclose his HIV infection as opposed to a celebrity from the political, entertainment or other industry?
There was just something about Magic. He was a personality beyond the court. He was literally beloved. His smile was known all over the world. He played our game in a most joyful way and seemed the least unlikely person to be afflicted by AIDS. He was everything. He was a celebrity. He was an entertainer, and he was a Hall of Famer basketball player.
Magic’s announcement was seen as a crisis for the NBA. Twenty-five years later, when you look back, how do you see it?
It confirmed to me the power of sports to educate and to change people’s minds on issues. It was a huge, huge opportunity, and I think that Magic, with a little help from us, changed the debate on AIDS in this country and possibly around the world.