amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Recalling Magic Johnson’s “Dramatic” HIV Announcement,
25 Years on

amfAR Trustee Dr. Mervyn Silverman casts his mind back to a pivotal moment in the history of HIV/AIDS in America

Magic Johnson announces he is HIV-positive at a news conference on Nov. 7, 1991.Magic Johnson announces he is HIV-positive at a news conference on Nov. 7, 1991.On Nov. 7, 1991, basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson disclosed to an astonished world at a surprise news conference that he had contracted HIV and would retire immediately from the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I think sometimes we think, well, only gay people can get it. ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’” he said. “And here I am saying it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.’”

Johnson vowed to "battle this deadly disease” and established the Magic Johnson Foundation to help educate people about HIV and AIDS.

With the 25th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement this month, amfAR spoke to board member Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who was the director of health for San Francisco from 1977 to 1985 and responsible for planning the city's initial response to AIDS.

You were the spokesperson for amfAR when Magic made his announcement. What do you remember about that day? What was your reaction?

I was going from New York to Chicago that day. I probably did more than 20 phone interviews, mostly with newspapers, on the plane. Even before I took off, I was fielding calls from all over the country. It was a really dramatic event. A number of calls were, “What do you think?” But there were also questions about HIV/AIDS in general. What are the symptoms of HIV and AIDS? Is it treatable? Are the drugs working? In 1991, HIV/AIDS was a scary thing. There were varying levels of knowledge about transmission, prevention, and treatment. My personal reaction from a public health point of view was, that as tragic as this was for Magic, this might be something that would help us get the message out about HIV prevention, especially to youth.

What was the aftermath like in the weeks following his disclosure? How did the news media and public react?

I remember people like Rock Hudson and other celebrities who would be front page for a day or two and then pretty much fade. This was something that was far and away much greater than that. It got people’s attention. This stayed front and center on the front page for at least two weeks. It was just something that was so shocking. I think the response was across all sectors of the public. There was so much ignorance and hysteria. I remember debating someone on television and saying that Magic should be able to still play basketball, that the odds of his blood getting into someone else’s body was very slim. The moderator turned to me and said, ‘You may know about AIDS. You may know about health. But you don’t know anything about basketball.’

Dr. Mervyn SilvermanDr. Mervyn SilvermanMagic’s announcement is considered to be a pivotal moment in the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. Why?

Magic Johnson was one of the greatest basketball players and was seemingly invincible. Here this person with all this strength and athleticism — he was vulnerable to HIV. If he could get it, anybody could get it. I think it had a tremendous impact on the American public. How much and was it long-lasting? I don’t know. Like everything else people don’t keep those things in the forefront very long. As time went on and people saw that he wasn’t getting worse and he wasn’t looking bad, that may have diminished some of the initial impact of the prevention message.  

How effective was Magic’s admission in quelling the assumption that only gay men and IV drug users were at risk of contracting the disease?

It was a wake-up call that anyone could get it. However, I’m not sure it really quelled the assumption that it was a gay disease because the overwhelming majority of people who contracted HIV were men who have sex with men.

To what extent did Magic Johnson change the perception of what living with HIV looks like?

In 1991, HIV was considered a death sentence. We didn’t know when Magic was exposed and couldn’t predict how long it would be before he developed AIDS. We figured without new or improved drugs, it would be a death sentence for him. The fact that he has looked and stayed as healthy as he has for 25 years is wonderful for him. From a public health standpoint, that has had a negative effect on our HIV prevention message. Young kids today will say, ‘What is the big deal? If I get HIV, I take some pills and I’m fine.’ Magic Johnson demonstrates the present state of HIV in America. With early diagnosis and treatment, most people can lead relatively normal lives. It also shows how much progress we have made in HIV research. Over a span of 35 years, we have gone from discovering a new disease to determining the cause, the means of spread, and how to treat it, and we’re on our way to a cure.