One of the most sobering moments I’ve had as a sports fan was Magic Johnson’s sudden retirement and announcement that he was HIV positive in 1991. I was only 11 at the time, and sports stars like Johnson were still super heroes to me. It was hard to fathom him announcing that he was afflicted with a virus that so many were terrified of and so few truly understood.
I wasn’t really old enough to understand the scope of what was happening, but I do remember the fears expressed by some, particularly Karl Malone, when Johnson was voted into the 1992 All-Star Game despite his retirement. SLAM posted a cool reflection on that game, and one of Johnson’s biggest advocates was Pistons legend Isiah Thomas:
Isiah Thomas (All-Star, Detroit Pistons): I remember Karl Malone being very vocal and a couple of other All-Stars. At that time, I was the president of the Player’s Association so I called a special meeting where I told everyone that not only was Magic going to play, but also we were all going to line up and embrace him. At the time, my brother was HIV-positive, so I was very well aware of the disease. I understood that it couldn’t be transmitted through touching.
Along the way, something definitely happened that soured the friendship between Thomas and Johnson, but I remember Isiah’s public stance at the time and it’s still one of the reasons I have a lot of respect for Thomas despite how fantastically bad his post-playing career has gone.