It’s NBA All-Star weekend and this year’s festivities in Orlando mark the 20th anniversary of the most inspirational All-Star performance in the league’s history. Just months after being informed that he’d tested HIV positive, Earvin “Magic” Johnson received a rightful sendoff from the league he helped build.
On November 7, 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson shocked the world when he announced that he’d contracted the HIV virus and would be retiring from the game of basketball immediately. That press conference is crystallized in the memories of all basketball fans who were old enough to remember. Nothing revealed the severity of the situation more than the stoic expression on Magic’s face, devoid of the trademark smile we’d all grown so accustomed to.
It’s easy to forget that little was known about HIV/AIDS twenty years ago other than that it was believed to lead to quick and certain death. The indomitable Magic had finally met his match in the game of life; or so it had appeared.
As the 1991-92 season progressed without him, fans showed their support for the beloved architect of the Lakers “Showtime” offense Magic by casting more All-Star votes for him than any other player in the Western Conference even though he hadn’t played one game that season. However, it wasn’t clear if he’d honor the fans’ wishes and play in the game.
In 1992, the American public wasn’t well educated about HIV/AIDS. Nobody was sure exactly how the disease was spread. Some players, including fellow all-stars Karl Malone and Mark Price, expressed concern about acquiring the virus through Magic’s sweat or blood and make it clear that they didn’t want to play with him.
Players, fans and analysts questioned how effective Magic would be even if he did play. He hadn’t competed competitively in months and the public wondered whether the HIV virus or possible side effects from the many medications he was taking would effect his performance. Furthermore, there was concern that it could be detrimental for his health to play.
Ultimately, with the blessing of his doctors and the rest of the game’s participants, Magic decided to take the court at Orlando Arena in Orlando Florida. As he’d done so many times throughout his career, he quickly silenced his doubters.
The Western Conference all-stars played a fast-paced style, reminiscent of the Lakers “Showtime” offense, and Magic had no trouble keeping up. He knifed through the defense and dazzled the crowd with vintage no-look passes, flashing his patented smile after every big play. He was back in his element, playing the game he loved, as if he’d never left.
The Western Conference all-stars ran away with the game, defeating the East 153-113. Magic finished with 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting and added nine assists and five rebounds in just 29 minutes of play and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
With a few minutes remaining and the outcome no longer in question the game turned into a personal farewell for one of basketball’s all-time most beloved players. With a minute left, the rest of the players cleared out and let Magic guard his close friend Isiah Thomas one-on-one. Zeke ran down the shot clock dribbling behind his back, then as he looked to get off a jump shot Magic’s long reach forced him into heaving an airball. The next East possession was Michael Jordan’s turn and he wasn’t going to take it easy on his old rival. Undaunted, Magic got a hand in his face, causing MJ to miss off the front of the rim.
Then it was Magic’s turn. His teammate Clyde Drexler got him the ball at the top of the key with 20 seconds remaining on the clock and Isiah guarding him closely. Magic backed him down with a couple dribbles, then stepped back and released an awkward looking, rainbow, three-point shot. Swish! He nailed it!
Nobody could believe that knuckleball found its way into the basket. It was his third three-pointer in the last three minutes. Magic pumped his fist, as a huge smile crept across his face, and the crowd exploded in jubilation. The East didn’t even bother inbounding the ball. The clock ran out as players from both teams hugged Magic. For one last last time, it was his night.
There have been more competitive NBA All-Star Games than the one in 1992, but none more memorable. Like his game-winning hook shot over the oustretched arm of Kevin McHale in Game 4 of the ’87 Finals or when he jumped center in place of Kareem and led the Lakers to the championship in his rookie season, Earvin Johnson reminded us once again that he’s simply Magic.