March 27, 2012
ESPN Film's recent presentation of The Announcement received widespread critical applause. Directed by Nelson George, the film recounts the story of Los Angeles Lakers star point guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson's 1991 declaration that he had contracted HIV, forcing his retirement from the NBA. "I'm gonna beat it. I'm gonna have some fun, and I'll see you soon," he proclaimed at the press conference.
The 90-minute documentary, which has encore presentations (check espn.go.com for airtimes), recounts personal stories of Magic's upbringing in Michigan -- featuring his dad, who taught his eight siblings and him to work hard, and his mom, who taught them to do it with a smile -- and his on-and-off courtship with wife Cookie. It also depicts highlights from the game-time "magic" of the 1980s that made Johnson the man on the court, and the man everyone wanted to be with behind the scenes. Revealing interviews with Lakers personnel and Johnson's family, former teammates and celebrity friends Arsenio Hall and Chris Rock appear throughout.
While the film doesn't address how Magic contracted the virus, his eldest son, Andre (from a prior relationship), says his father had been "reckless" with women and wanted Andre to "make better decisions."
For her part, Cookie -- who was pregnant with their first child when Magic got the news -- admitted that she didn't want to know whether he was HIV positive and implored her husband to keep his status from the public. "But he said people need to know that anyone can get this disease," Cookie recounts in the film.
Indeed, the thrust of the film is to show how Magic's diagnosis changed the world's perception about the disease and spotlighted not only the reality of who can contract HIV/AIDS (that is, heterosexuals are not immune) but also of how it can contracted (for example, it can't be spread by way of sweat on the basketball court), during an era when the public feared that a mere touch could spread the disease.
Magic eventually returned to the NBA, retiring on his own terms in 1996 to launch a successful career as a businessman -- his own, Comcast-branded inspirational-themed cable network, Aspire, is expected to launch this summer -- and become an ardent spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness. His tireless work caused the Black AIDS Institute to recognize him as one of the Heroes in the Struggle, and the Magic Johnson Foundation co-founded the National Black AIDS Mobilization campaign.
But Magic concedes that with all the medical advancements -- including how well he's been living with the disease -- the public, particularly young people, have become lax about protecting themselves.
Currently, there are 33.4 million people living with HIV/ADS, including more than 1 million in the United States. In the African American community, the numbers continue to rise among women, teens and gay and bisexual men. Says Johnson, "We need to get scared again."
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, author and documentary filmmaker.