November 7, 1991: “Magic Johnson might have AIDS”

John Harte / The Bakersfield Californian On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen. Californian reporter Brad Turner and photographer John Harte covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended to the scene.
On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson shocked the world with his announcement that he was HIV positive and, still in the prime of his career, retiring from the Lakers. In this frame is NBA commissioner David Stern and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Californian reporter Brad Turner and I covered the announcement, racing to the Great Western Forum in Inglewood and entering through a kitchen when the main entrance to the press area was inaccessible due to a throng of media and fans who descended on the scene. This is one of my shots from that day.

By the Fall of 1991, I was firmly established as The Bakersfield Californian’s “night photographer,” working the evening shift exclusively. The shift was not popular with the other photographers, almost all of them preferred the morning shifts, so there were no objections when I volunteered to work the night shift permanently, something I did for a good 20 years or so. I loved staying up late, sleeping in, and working with as few editors around as possible. A newsroom takes on a whole different feel when the daysiders head home. More relaxed, less confusion and everybody knowing what their job is and how to do it. It almost runs itself. I always believed your basic American newsroom could run smoothly and more efficiently with about 25 percent of the editors they employed. But most of all, I loved shooting sports, and sports happen in the late afternoon or at night.

My morning routine always started with me heading over to Marie Callender’s for my coffee. On November 7, 1991, a Thursday, I finished my coffee run and noticed the light blinking on my phone’s answering machine. We did not have cell phones at the time. It was a message from my photo editor, Casey Christie, asking if I could come to work early and to call him back. Getting called to work early was not very common back then. We had a decent sized photo staff – nine people – so that indicated something big was going on. Casey answered my call and I remember him saying “Can you come to work early and head down to Los Angeles with Brad Turner? The Lakers are holding a press conference this afternoon. Something about Magic Johnson, but I don’t know what.”

The Californian had not yet been swallowed by the “hyper-local” newspaper craze, and at the time operated as a regional newspaper. We routinely covered professional and major college sports in Los Angeles, and did not hesitate to pack up and head to any major news stories occurring anywhere in California. The Lakers, of course, were NBA royalty and Bakersfield was very much a Lakers town. I had just photographed the season opener a couple of days earlier. Brad Turner – who now covers the Clippers for the Los Angeles Times under his full name, Broderick Turner – was The Californian’s Lakers beat writer. Because of the distance to the Great Western Forum (about two hours) and the lack of easy means of transmitting photos under deadline, we did not shoot all of the Lakers’ games, but we shot a lot of them, and I did most of that work.

By the time I got into the office a few minutes after talking with Casey, more information had filtered in. I’ll never forget Casey’s words when I asked if he knew what was going on. They hit me like a sucker punch. “Magic Johnson might have AIDS.”

Within minutes, Brad and I were on our way to Los Angeles. But it didn’t look good. The press conference was less than two hours from starting, and I didn’t see any possibility of us getting there on time. Not with Los Angeles traffic, and the most brutal LA traffic you’re likely to encounter, the 405 through the San Fernando Valley, over the Sepulveda Pass, then through Los Angeles’ busy westside and on to Inglewood, right into the teeth of Los Angeles International Airport traffic. Nope, we weren’t going to make it, I decided. But Brad had just purchased a brand new Isuzu Trooper. Bakersfield Californian cars were equipped with devices that monitored our driving performance, forcing us to drive the speed limit, which at the time was 55 mph. So we took Brad’s Isuzu instead. Brad did not drive 55 mph. At each glance I took at the speedometer, we were going 90 mph! Seriously, we were flat out flying. I remember Brad saying something about this story being worth a speeding ticket.

We breezed into the San Fernando Valley from Bakersfield, always an easy drive, and now it was time to face the beast. I looked at my watch. Hmmm, maybe we could make it after all. Oh, but the beast. If Satan was a stretch of highway, he would be the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass. It’s a relatively short stretch that joins the San Fernando Valley with the Westside, and let me tell you, folks, it is pure evil. Many a trip has been ruined by Sepulveda Pass traffic, at times so brutal that when you finally reach your destination, you’re so pissed off you don’t even want to be there. Well, the traffic gods were on our side, and we flew over the pass. No traffic! And it happened again as we cleared Westwood and headed to the Forum on Supelveda’s evil twin brother, the stretch from Santa Monica to Inglewood, which just happens to include the highways 405 and 10 interchange, the busiest freeway interchange in the United States. We were going to make it in time!

This frame grab from the ESPN documentary
This frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement” shows the scene Brad Turner and I encountered outside the Forum’s media entrance when we arrived. There was no way we were going to get through that and into the press conference.

We pulled into the Forum’s parking lot and immediately encountered another obstacle. By now, the Los Angeles and national media were reporting the pending announcement and that Johnson had contracted HIV, and hundreds of people had descended upon the Forum. You can see from the above picture there was no way we were going to make it through that crowd. They probably had already sealed off access just to comply with fire codes.

But Brad knew the Forum and the Lakers pretty well. Like in a movie – how does “Broderick Saves the Day” sound – Brad says “follow me,” and the next thing I know, we’re racing around the side of the Forum, into a door and we’re inside a huge kitchen! Then through some hallways and finally we enter the big room where the press conference will be held. Brad knew his way around that building. We were in!

In my 28-year newspaper career, I never saw so much media assembled in one location. “Media crush” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Photographers had already taken all the floor space in front of the podium, and a huge throng – both still and video shooters – assembled in clusters wherever there was room. I nudged and squeezed my way into one of the groups at the rear of the room. It was so packed that I could barely reach down and grab the second camera hanging along my left side. This was where I was going to shoot from, and there would be no possibility of moving around. The room was hot and smelled of perspiration. It was also quiet, something you don’t usually get from journalists in large groups. I was slightly to the right of the podium, and it looked like it would be OK, just as long as security didn’t position themselves to where it blocked the podium.

It may have just been a few minutes, but it felt much longer. And then, a solemn procession filed in – I think from the same door Brad and I entered through a few minutes earlier. Magic entered first, followed by Lakers owner Jerry Buss, general manager Jerry West, NBA commissioner David Stern, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson’s wife Cookie and his agent Lon Rosen. He smiled that big smile and putting his hand over his eyes, acknowledged the massive throng of media with a simple “whoa.” The cameras clicked and the flashes fired. And with the entire world watching on live television, Magic Johnson said the words that would play a role in changing the face of AIDS in America forever: “Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained, uh, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary
In this frame grab from the ESPN documentary “The Announcement,” I am somewhere in that room, judging from the angle of my photos, most likely in the throng of photographers in the upper right portion of this photo.

Of all the sports I photographed in my career, noting came close to the thrill of watching, and trying to shoot, Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Lakers running a fast break and taking control of a game. It seemed the Lakers would always be trailing when Magic would take over. With a 180mm or 300 mm lens pointed at him from the opposite baseline, he would grab a rebound or take a pass and head toward me. I could swear he was looking right into my camera, but of course, he wasn’t. Then he would fire the ball. I could swear he was throwing it right at me, but of course, he wasn’t. When I was convinced I was about to get nailed by a Magic Johnson pass, James Worthy or Byron Scott or A.C. Green would swoop into the frame, catch the ball and throw down a slam dunk. Switching cameras to capture both ends of the play was impossible, at least for me, it happened so damn fast. The Forum crowd would roar, the opposing team would call a time out to try and stem the tide. The Laker girls would file onto the floor as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” would blast over the loudspeakers. The Forum was delirium, the game now in hand. I didn’t get to hear it, because I was sitting on the floor, but up above me Chick Hearn was declaring “This ball game is in the refrigerator. The door is closed, the lights are out. The eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard and the jello’s jiggling.”

And it was all over. This day, the great Western Forum was a crypt. The announcement was brief, and Magic tried to keep it positive, promising that “I’ll still being around bugging you guys.” But everybody in the room, heck, in the world, knew that Magic would soon be gone. Utah Jazz star Karl Malone candidly admitted that he thought Johnson was a “dead man walking” after the announcement.

Magic Johnson delivers his shocking news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.
Magic Johnson delivers his news to the world that he has contracted HIV and would be retiring from the Lakers on November 7, 1991. This is another of my images.

After the announcement, most of the media and some of the Lakers staff made their way to the Forum Club, adjacent to the players, media and VIP entrance. I always loved leaving a Lakers game and passing through the media/VIP exit. I had a game I would play. Lots of celebrities attended Lakers games so lots of paparazzi assembled outside the exit, hoping to snap pix of Dyan Cannon or Jack Nicholson or Goldie Hawn or any assortment of Lakers, actors, sports stars or power players who attended the games. So I would wait for a celebrity to leave the Forum, then I would walk out beside them. The flashes would fire from all the paparazzi, and a week or two later I would check all the celebrity gossip magazines to see if I was in any of the pictures. It never worked, but I tried!

As I was leaving the Forum after the announcement, I glanced into the Forum Club and saw a moment that I simply had to capture. Lakers general manager Jerry West was sitting alone at the bar, seemingly staring into nowhere, his face more than anything I had seen telling the story of the day. I fired two shots, having to use flash because it was dark in there, and left it at that.

I don’t remember what Brad and I talked about on the ride back to Bakersfield, and with a ton of work still ahead of me, I don’t think I was really processing what had just happened and what I had just covered. Back in the newsroom, the edit was fairly easy. The two pictures you see here of Magic are the ones we ran. I was pretty excited about the Jerry West photo, but was disappointed when the picture came out of the soup. That’s what we called the processing chemicals back in the day. Something hanging from the bar had blocked the flash and thrown a large shadow across West’s forehead. At the time, we were shooting transparencies and did not have any digital software that could lighten or darken shadows. I declared the picture not publication worthy because of the shadow. But I had told Casey Christie about the photo and he wanted to see it. He overruled me, and I’m glad he did. Sometimes I get too carried away with my obsession over the technical aspects of my photos. I saw a shadow that ruined a picture. Casey saw emotion etched in the face of the man who ran the team that just lost it’s heart and soul, one of the greatest players the NBA had ever produced. He saw historical value, and he saw a picture we were pretty sure nobody else had. So the photo ran.

Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West sat alone in the bar at the Great Western Forum in the moments following the announcement on November 7, 1991, by Magic Johnson that he was HIV positive and would be retiring from the Lakers.

America did not handle the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s well. In fact, from political and religious leadership to media responsibility to public health protocol, everything about America’s handling of AIDS in the early days was a failure. President Ronald Reagan essentially refused to acknowledge the spreading epidemic or even mention the word “AIDS” for several years, and even tried to reduce AIDS funding in the federal budget as the disease was spreading. The media largely ignored the new disease because it was a so called “gay disease” affecting what was considered by Americans at the time to be an unworthy class of citizen. Vile preachers with huge followings like Jerry Falwell (one of the most awful people I ever met and photographed in my career) worked the citizenry into a frenzy, declaring the disease “God’s punishment” for the homosexual lifestyle, self-proclaimed “Men of God” spreading hatred and intolerance when they could have fostered compassion, understanding and education. And this disturbing article from the Journal of Public Health Policy details how the Centers for Disease Control, admittedly stifled by the Reagan Administration, dropped the ball in the early days of the epidemic at a time when funding, education and prevention protocols could have been invaluable.

So Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive transcends sports, and sits as one of the defining moments in the nation’s coming to grips with the disease. I’m not a health journalist, but as a photojournalist whose career started about the same time the AIDS epidemic did, I covered a lot of stories about AIDS and because of the fear and hysteria that pervaded every corner of American society, I followed this story closely. I believe there were six defining moments that helped America come to terms with the epidemic and that forced social, medical and political change. First was the death of actor Rock Hudson from the disease. It wasn’t until a friend of Reagan’s died that he finally decided to address it publicly, doing so at the request of another actor friend, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1987. Next is Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s battle with the Reagan Administration to address the epidemic, concluding with his release of an informational pamphlet in 1988 to every American household. It was the first significant step by the government to educate its citizens, and it was a brutal fight for Koop, who insisted that the pamphlet be free of moral and political statements. He even had to “sneak in” a recommendation advocating the use of condoms, for fear that the White House would not allow it.

Next up is Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who was infected by HIV from a blood transfusion. The boy found himself facing discrimination at every level, including being expelled from school for having the disease. The Ryan White case would lead to passage by Congress of the Ryan White CARE Act which mandates major federal funding for AIDS care, treatment and research. It would also signal that AIDS was not just a “gay disease” or a “druggie disease,” sending a major wake up call to America. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe announced in 1992 that he had contracted AIDS, most likely from a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat AIDS which advocated the need for AIDS research and funding as well as sex education and safe sex practices. His celebrity and status as a respected athlete kept AIDS from sliding out of the public consciousness.

In 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington starred in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” the first major studio film to tackle AIDS. The film was a major hit, Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar, and it probably did more to bring attention to HIV/AIDS than all the news stories and political hearings and funding battles ever could, such is the nature of celebrity.

Magic Johnson’s announcement stands with those, maybe even above them, given his stature. He was easily one of the most loved figures in American sports history. He shattered the illusion that only “other people” get HIV/AIDS and he set out to educate others and raise awareness of AIDS and how to prevent it, even serving on President George Bush’s council. (In later years he would admit what was widely suspected, that his sexual promiscuity likely led to his contracting HIV.)  And of course, by living with HIV for more than 20 years now, he provides hope for others. He is by far the most famous American to have contracted the disease. The New York Daily News devoted both its front and back covers to Magic’s announcement, which should give an indication of the impact it had.newsWhen I got home that night, I finally began to digest what I had just covered. I got to know Magic Johnson a little bit over the years, and he really was, and I’m sure still is, a very nice guy. He was the guy who would come over and say “hello” when he saw me in the Forum hallway. He was the guy who was always the same, win or lose, upbeat, happy and friendly. One day, in 1988, I was covering a Raiders game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. I got up from my shooting position, turned around and found myself staring into the chest of a very large person. I looked up, and it was Magic. He was looking down at me and with a big smile said, “Hey, nice hat.” That summer, the Lakers had won the NBA title for the second year in a row and I had purchased a Lakers “Back-to-Back” championship hat, which I was wearing. I said, “Thanks, I like it, too,” and shuffled off to a new shooting position. I have a rule about autographs. Never, ever, ask for an autograph from someone you are photographing. Ditto for asking to pose for a picture with them. It’s unprofessional in my view. But I got to thinking, “Damn, I sure would like to have Magic autograph this hat.”

But a rule is a rule, right? Never before had I asked for an autograph, and never since, either. Then a thought entered my brilliant head. Earlier that summer, I had photographed “A Mid-Summer Night’s Magic,” Johnson’s fund raising all-star basketball game. During the game, the players cleared the floor and set up a one-on-one showdown, Magic Johnson against his teammate and buddy, Michael Cooper. Johnson tried to put a move on Cooper, and as he fell backward, Cooper threw out his leg, tripping Magic. I got a shot of Magic heading to the floor, a big smile on his face. I bet Magic would like to have that picture, I thought, so I walked up and made the proposition; I’ll trade Magic a copy of the photo for his autograph on the cap. He was all for it. He signed the cap (which I have kept in plastic ever since) and I mailed him the picture. I saw him at another Raiders game later in the season, and asked if he got the picture. “I did, it’s great,” he said. “I hung it up.”

I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.
I traded Magic this photo I shot of him and Michael Cooper for an autograph, the only one I ever obtained in my career.

magic_autograph_web Magic_hat_webI thought Magic Johnson was going to die. Everybody did. One of the networks dedicated an hour-long special that night to Magic Johnson. I was exhausted and didn’t want to watch it. So I programmed my VCR and recorded it. I wrote “Magic Johnson -32-” on it and put it away, deciding I would watch it in a few months when Magic passed away. I’ve never watched it. I’m two years older than Magic, so maybe I’ll never watch it. Heck, maybe when our time comes, there will be no way of ever watching a VHS tape!Magic_VHS_webNovember 7, 1991, is a day that will stay with me forever. That wild car ride with Brad, running through the Forum kitchen, being in the largest crush of media I’ve ever experienced. But mostly, realizing the incredible things we get to see as photojournalists. It was one of the most momentous moments in American sports history, and I was in the room that day. I was in the room.Lakersweb

Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.
Magic Johnson, teammates and fans celebrated the Lakers 1988 NBA title in downtown Los Angeles.

56 thoughts on “November 7, 1991: “Magic Johnson might have AIDS”

  1. Thanks for writing and sharing this! I remember Magic’s announcement like it was yesterday. Those Showtime Lakers are IMO the greatest basketball team I have ever seen, with Magic being the greatest. This news floored me at the time it came out. Magic to this day is still an inspiration, the last twenty plus years off the court rather than on. Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

  2. Just beautiful. I remember crying when I heard the news. I was still in my teens and that singular news helped tame some of the wildness that I would have cultivated ;). Thankfully, he is still with us and keeping strong.

  3. This an amazing article through a lens on not just the capture of November 7,1991 (which I will never forget now), but also the journey of HIV/Aids in American History. The pictures showed so much emotion. I really enjoyed this!

  4. As a child, I loved basketball. I remember having a poster of Magic on my wall, right next to the British race horse “Desert Orchid”. When the news broke about Magic contracting the virus, my father sat me down to try and explain what was happening. It was difficult for him to know what to say. In retrospect, my father, like many, was ignorant to the disease and truly had little concept of what was going to happen to Magic; or how to answer my tiny, pining, little sad face questions. I really enjoyed this story. Touched.

  5. This one is a story for the books. What an experience! I know everything happens for a reason, so Magic getting AIDS I think helps society accept the sickness rather than associate it towards a certain group of people.

  6. I woke at 5.30am this morning and being a little chilly here towards the end of a long Tasmanian winter checked my WordPress, with the idea of sneaking a sleep in soon after..that was before I saw your story. Wide awake, fully engrossed in your detailed and very enjoyable write up. Thank you! Grabbed me from the headline! And it’s still chilly…

  7. I was sitting in a small tea shop in Xi’an, China when this news came out… It was in the People’s Daily newspaper and with very little Western news coming into this city at the time I really could not wrap my mind around this. Your post is a fantastic recap and memory of the announcement.

  8. I was only 6 years old but I remember his announcement and being very curious about this HIV thing people were talking about. My mother died from it 4 years later. So for me, HIV has always been around but I can just imagine back then, it being a new disease nobody knew how to handle it. But I’m so happy for the things that have happened over the years to bring attention to this disease.
    This was a very good read. Thanks

  9. Great read. Your name is so familiar.
    I lived in Bako for over 14 years, often working with the Californian on stories for publication and, on occasion, being the subject of stories due to my involvement in the theatrical arts and that close knit community or because of my job as the PR guy for both Barnes & Noble and The Empty Space Theatre.
    Mr Christie came to my house in the southwest at 7am to photograph me and my kids for a story they were writing about long distance marriages. It was shortly after the 9/11 attack and featured my story about how we handled that as a couple. He was/is one of the nicest guys I had the pleasure to meet from The Californian.
    Thanks for this fantastic story. It moved me. It also brought back a lot of memories with that local rag.
    Thanks again.
    Thomas G Robinson
    Glendale, Ca

  10. Now it’s twenty four years later and Magic Johnson still is HIV positive yet has defied succumbing to AIDS. How is that possible if it’s such a deadly disease?

  11. He hasn’t lived with it for 20 years, he is one of the few that have been able to afford or receive the treatment that they want to call the “cure”. He came out 16 years ago saying he was cured, he had blood transfusions, marrow and meds that aren’t available to the public, well at that time anyway, money helps. His HIV levels now are so low they’re barely detectable. But yes, by him, a famous person, coming out he did help change some views. To bad the meds are so expensive and the average person can’t walk in to a high end doctor and ask for blood/marrow transfusions.

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