Looking Back: Tragic To Magic, 15 Years Later

By Tom Hoffarth
Updated: November 10, 2006

LOS ANGELES — The way ESPN’s Dan Patrick described it at 3:05 p.m. on Nov. 7, 1991, was simple: “We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you perhaps the biggest sports related story of our time.”

Magic Johnson was going to die, a statistic no sports reporter was used to dealing with. Misinformation ensued.

Magic had a “full-blown case of AIDS,” KCBS Channel 2 sportscaster Keith Olbermann reported. He later admitted that two sources within the team who confused the HIV virus with AIDS persuaded him to go with that information.

Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn, during an interview with a Prime Ticket reporter, chastised those who were “starting silly rumors about how (Magic) got AIDS … don’t think the wrong way … they’re not true and believe me, if any one else tells you, you deny it.”

Unsettled reporters asked questions about Johnson’s prognosis of complete recovery, while viewers at home around the world on CNN watched it all unfold live.

It’s 15 years later. Johnson hasn’t died. Far from it, having become one of the most robust businessmen in the city and nationwide, and considered someday to be a candidate for L.A. mayor if he ever wanted to pursue it.

If an HIV/AIDS story like that broke on the L.A. sports scene today, what would happen, considering the advancement of the Internet and the tenfold expansion of sports media coverage where rumors and inuendo would spread even faster and more furiously?

“There definitely would not be as much shock or passing judgment, a lot less ignorance and speculation,” said KCBS Channel 2′s Jim Hill, already a close friend of Johnson’s who was working at KABC Channel 7 on that day in 1991.

“We’d all have a much better grasp of the situation because we’ve learned so much more since then,” said KNBC Channel4′s Fred Roggin, also at that news conference and reporting live.

“Above all, I don’t think fear would run so rampant, because back then it sure did. There was paranoia because of the unknown.”

“There would be a 165 degree different reaction in the media, because of what’s happened to Magic in the last 15 years,” said KLAC-AM’s Joe McDonnell, working at the old KMPC-AM (710) on that day and doing radio reports for Mutual Radio.

“We’d know that it wasn’t a death sentence, a player wouldn’t have to retire and we’d know they’d have medication that could stymie it.”

Today, some 1.1 million people live with HIV or AIDS in this country, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. There are an estimated 38.6million who have it worldwide.

There still is no known cure for a disease that was discovered in 1981 and originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.

Johnson’s announcement back then before TV cameras and newspaper reporters in a tiny room inside the Inglewood Forum tried to inform those immediately about the differences in HIV and AIDS.

“Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers,” the 32-year-old Johnson said that day. “I think sometimes we think, `Well, only gay people can get it, only … well, it’s not going to happen to me.’ And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody. Even me, Magic Johnson, it can happen to.”

In interviews this week, Hill and McDonnell said that information provided by their contacts within the Lakers organization days before the news conference somewhat prepared them for this bombshell, but their naivety about the disease prevented them from wanting to have the story before the official announcement.

“We knew it was serious because the commissioner was coming into town,” Hill said. “The morning of the press conference I got a call and was told, `Magic has AIDS.’ There was dead silence on the line for 30 seconds.

“I thought: `In the next few months, he’d no longer be with us.’ But I couldn’t go on the air and say that, because you have to know what you’re talking about, and none of us really did about this.”

Said McDonnell: “Three days before it, a reporter told me he had heard that Magic had AIDS, and I thought it was crazy. I asked Lon Rosen (Johnson’s agent) and he denied it. When that press conference happened, I saw Randi Hall (a reporter at Prime Ticket), who I’d told about the rumor I heard, and she asked if I was upset that I didn’t break the story. I said, `No, this is one I did not want to break.’ And then I saw Lon, and he said he was sorry he had to lie earlier. It was all just surreal.”

There had been a reference point to sports and AIDS before this. Two years earlier, NASCAR driver Tim Richmond, 34, died from AIDS complications.

Less than a year after Magic’s announcement, former tennis star Arthur Ashe revealed he had AIDS from a blood transfusion before USA Today tried to break the story. Ashe died in February, 1993.

Former Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke died of AIDS complications in 1995, the same year Olympic diver Greg Louganis revealed he was HIV positive. A year later, figure skater Rudy Galindo announced he was HIV positive.

Still, nothing has compared to what happened that day 15 years ago. Perhaps nothing will.

“I think it led to a resurgence in African American men getting their physicals – including me – and not let our egos get involved,” said Hill, who continues to assist Johnson at speaking engagements on AIDS awareness.

“It was the most shocking event I’ve ever covered, and no one knew enough to even articulate what it meant,” said Roggin, who has been at Channel 4 for 26 years.

“Some may say that press conference felt like it happened yesterday. To me, that 15 years seems like forever because of how well Magic has done. We now find out it’s not a death sentence, it’s manageable, and he’s living proof.”