The NCAA men's basketball tournament will give sports viewers plenty of hoops to feast on in the coming weeks. But before that happens, ESPN has a more serious subject to address: Earvin "Magic" Johnson's disclosure on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had HIV.
In the documentary film "The Announcement"--which ESPN will premiere on Sunday night after the NCAA selects the teams for this year's tournament--director Nelson George examines the Lakers point guard's stunning revelation from a variety of standpoints (including the player's own, as he addresses the camera in a recent interview from an empty Forum).
It's impossible not to remember the bombshell Forum press conference that autumn Thursday, and, like the JFK assassination or Challenger explosion, where we were when we heard it. "The Announcement" shows what happened behind the scenes: how Johnson learned of his illness, the anxiety over telling family and teammates and the fallout that occurred once he did. The film uses a similar format to many of the network's "30 for 30" films--talking-head interviews, prominent music cues, archival footage--to tell a story that most of us, it turns out, know only superficially.
At a screening in downtown Los Angeles last week, just a stone's throw from where the Lakers now play, Johnson was in attendance, beaming his million-dollar smile as he introduced the movie and shouting out to sponsors who had made the film and its promotion possible. There were many, and Johnson was happy to name-check them all..
Then he got serious for a moment. "Andre was the one who had to go through a lot when you think of 20 years ago," Johnson said, referring to his son, who was 10 at the time of the announcement and was in attendance at the screening. "He didn't know if [his] dad was going to be here."
The network has also been promoting the documentary heavily--commentators reminisced about the surreal period during a break in the Big West championship Saturday night, for instance--and it's easy to see why.
In the film, we see Johnson and his likable brio as he emerges as a phenom from Michigan State. "I don't know if everyone feels they were born to do something...but I did," he recalls. The winning, and hard-partying culture, surrounding the '80s and early '90s Lakers is on display, expressed through the recollections of celebrities such as Chris Rock. Then Johnson is given the news, and a good-times story suddenly turns dismal. Johnson grapples with the diagnosis, then watches as the NBA and the world grapple too.
Indeed, like "The Fab Five," the network's post-selection film from last year, "The Announcement" takes a scalpel to larger social issues. In this case, it's the fear of AIDS, expressed via the likes of Karl Malone, who declared that it was unfair for Johnson to play because Malone wouldn't feel comfortable guarding him. To watch "The Announcement" is to call to mind a time when a hero was suddenly vulnerable (not to mention a Lakers dynasty abruptly imperiled) but also to remind ourselves of a larger social anxiety over a virus we were only beginning to understand.
"The Announcement" is also deeply personal, a document of a magnetic character and his reaction to terrible news. "I wasn’t scared to announce it; I wasn’t scared of the media. What I was scared of is… would I see [friends and teammates] again?” he says in the film.
Nor is Johnson (treated with a fair degree of hagiography) the only protagonist: his wife, Cookie, who Laker fans will remember well from the announcement, gets ample screen time and emerges as a three-dimensional character, first wary, then supportive.
AIDS expert David Ho notes in the film that the drug cocktail Johnson has taken has given the star an immune system nearly identical to that of a person without the virus. Johnson, who has had a successful second career as an entrepreneur behind movie theaters and restaurants, suggests this is a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it shows what is possible to accomplish with HIV and a curse because it blunts the cautionary aspects of his story.
Sitting in a downtown Los Angeles movie theater watching Johnson look as healthy as ever, though, it was hard not to focus on the former.
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Photo: Earvin "Magic" Johnson making the announcement on Nov. 7, 1991. Credit: ESPN