Presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have leaned on him for advice and some star quality.
The American icons are all gone. Marilyn Monroe is dead. Roy Orbison. Babe Ruth. Frank Sinatra. All gone.
But Magic Johnson is still very much alive.
Many of us would have caught glimpses of his genius throughout this LA Lakers career in the ’80s — cherishing snatches of the talent that saw his given name of Earvin relegated to the bench in place of ‘Magic’.
He was the famous, glamorous Lakers’ talisman in their pan-American battles with the blue collar Boston Celtics, led by the other icon of the game during that decade, Larry Bird.
But for me, it was the 1992 Olympics that brought Johnson — along with his pals Michael Jordan, Bird, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen — into my front room, as he led the Dream Team to gold in Barcelona.
The arrival of this Hollywood act was like the scene at the start of the Wizard of Oz when life suddenly transforms from monochrome to a vivid technicolour. Men who I only knew from signatures on friends’ sneakers and obtuse references in imported US sitcoms now put flesh on the bones of their reputations, doing their thing in prime time on squeaky hardwood on my side of the world.
And they delivered.
However, Johnson landed into Barcelona with plenty of baggage that summer, 20 years ago. He had already retired from the game in the most shocking of circumstances on November 7, the previous year, announcing to his family first, then team-mates and finally to the world that he had HIV.
It was a moment that transcended sport and was included in news bulletins throughout the world. You’ll remember HIV was still a disease clouded by understandable fear and misconceptions and when Johnson walked out in front of a black curtain at the Forum in LA, he was thought to be condemning himself to a public death sentence.
Those of us who caught ESPN’s documentary The Announcement about that period in Johnson’s life will have learned how the news sunk in; how Johnson learned of his illness, the anxiety over telling family and team-mates and, of course, the very public fallout that exploded once he did.
He narrates the film himself, first tracing his emergence as a talented high school player with a big afro and smile before he moves on to a glittering stay at Michigan University.
“I don’t know if everyone feels they were born to do something,” he recalled, “but I did.”
Hollywood faces like Chris Rock paints a picture of the champagne nights after Lakers games in which Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman rushed to touch Johnson’s hem and the nightclub they had in the stadium was filled with California girls. Johnson admitted he drifted and broke up with long-term college girlfriend Cookie more than once under the strain of the flattering attention. And he enjoyed it.
“I wasn’t scared to announce it,” he said later of the diagnosis, “I wasn’t scared of the media. What I was scared of is… would I see them [friends and team-mates] again?”
Happily, you know the ending — or at least the present chapter — in this tale. Johnson has survived for two decades with his illness thanks to advances in medicine.
He’s now, if not fitter, richer and happier than when he played. He owns Starbucks coffee shops in black neighbourhoods throughout the US, shopping centres, talent agencies, TV and film production companies. Presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have leaned on him for advice and some star quality.
And more importantly probably, he spends a large chunk of his time educating his country’s young people on the realities of HIV and AIDS, and how not to end up making an announcement of their own. “Because of the HIV virus I have attained,” he said. “I will have to retire from the Lakers.”
The world was shocked. 20 years later it’s good to have him still around.