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The defining Magic moment

Earvin 'Magic' Johnson's story transcends sport.

THERE are moments on the sporting field that resonate through the ages - picture Jezza's mark in the 1970 VFL grand final or Shane Warne's ball of the century on the 1993 Ashes tour. The same can be said about incidents off the field - Wayne Carey's demise at North Melbourne, for example.

But it takes an athlete of a special kind to be responsible for both. Earvin ''Magic'' Johnson is one such man, now as famous for his basketball prowess as he is for contracting the HIV virus and later his success as a businessman, philanthropist and ambassador in the fight against AIDS.

Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, life could not have been more fulfilling for the Los Angeles Lakers superstar. He redefined the role of a point guard and even basketball as a whole, won five NBA championships and enjoyed the spoils that came with money and fame.

On arriving in LA for the first time, having grown up with nine siblings in the backstreets of Michigan, Detroit, Johnson was mesmerised by the orange trees lining the streets. He would soon have any orange he wanted.

It would be an indulgence of another kind, though, that would lead to the most harrowing moment of his life and ensure he would be forever remembered for more than the Lakers' fabled ''Showtime'' offence.

On a pre-season trip to Utah in 1991, Johnson was ordered home to be told why he had failed a battery of physical tests the Lakers had ordered for insurance purposes.


At the age of 32 he had contracted HIV, not full-blown AIDS, but, nonetheless, the virus that was sweeping through the US. Johnson had been handed what many thought was a death sentence.

Johnson, his wife Cookie and those closest to him, would keep the news quiet for a few days while Cookie was tested and Johnson re-tested but the revelation would begin to leak.

Johnson called a press conference on Thursday, November 7, 1991. He would tell the world that he, a heterosexual sports star, had a virus predominantly associated with gay men. He would retire immediately from the NBA.

It was a defining day, for Johnson and for AIDS awareness.

Johnson's life before and after AIDS has been chronicled in a sobering documentary entitled The Announcement, narrated by Johnson and airing on ESPN tonight.

''It shifted the whole dialogue [about AIDS]. I guess the analogy is, for a generation of men and women, Magic's announcement was akin to the Kennedy assassination. It hit people that hard,'' director Nelson George says.

To that point, Johnson had thought himself bullet proof.

''I didn't drink or smoke. That would have got in the way of winning. But there were a lot of other things out there to tempt me,'' he said in the voice over.

''It was carefree in the '80s. Have fun at night and don't worry about it.''

An interview Johnson conducted in the 1980s highlighted this. ''I am young. I still have good health, so I am going to take advantage of it. It's all one big party, all one big show,'' he said at the time.

The 90-minute documentary does not say when Johnson contracted HIV, nor does he discuss in detail his off-court exploits.

The latter was explored in his 1992 autobiography and were touched on in an excellent HBO documentary with fellow NBA great Larry Bird in 2010.

This time we hear of his troubles in settling down with Cookie, his college sweetheart, while celebrity comedian Chris Rock tells of the post-match parties at The Forum Club in LA.

Johnson's tale is sobering, touching and enlightening. There is disturbing hospital footage of AIDS patients in the '80s. There is a flashback to the early '90s and a HIV-positive young girl, no older than five, crying and being consoled by Johnson on a television show designed to de-stigmatise the virus. It was a humbling moment.

We learn later that she is still alive having benefited, like Johnson, from medicine that was not available in the 1980s.

Johnson's wife, Cookie, also plays a prominent role for she had just fallen pregnant when Johnson told her of his shattering news. Fortunately, mother and baby were fine. So, too, was Johnson's son from a previous relationship.

We also relive the concerns his teammates and opponents had at the time when Johnson announced he would make a comeback. Many thought at the time, wrongly, that HIV could be passed on through sweat.

It's said that Los Angeles' history can fall into two eras - pre-AIDS and post-AIDS. Johnson's powerful account certainly influenced the post-AIDS era for the better. In doing so, he certainly transcended the limited confines of a basketball court perhaps more than any athlete.

The Announcement, Tonight, 8pm. ESPN.

Twitter: @Pierik-AgeSport