One or two dates can define a generation. In my grandparents' time there were December 7, 1941 and June 6, 1944—Pearl Harbor and D-Day. For my parents, it was November 22, 1963, and April 4, 1968—the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prior to September 11, 2001, the most significant date for my generation was a less recognizable one:
November 7, 1991.
The day Earvin "Magic" Johnson, point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, maestro of the NBA's "Showtime" era, announced that he was retiring because he had contracted the HIV virus.
I don’t know what everyone else was doing that day; ironically, I had just come in from playing ball and was getting ready for opening night in the NBA. I turned on the tube and heard Magic's announcement—and I was devastated. "This has to be a joke," I remember saying out, with my mind all over the place. And then a more painful realization:
"He just got married, and they’re expecting!"
Magic had married his college sweetheart Cookie that summer, and my thoughts immediately went to her. She and her child—were they infected? It was one of those moments where you had to call somebody, but to be honest I can't remember whether I even picked up the phone. I felt like I'd just watched Magic preach his own funeral.
That day, the world came to know HIV as a disease that didn't discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. For years, the notable AIDS victims were gay white men: Rock Hudson, Liberace, Freddy Mercury. Magic, of course was neither gay nor white; he was a black heterosexual male athlete with a desire for women—sometimes too many women.
Suddenly being down with O.P.P. wasn’t so appealing anymore.
And "Hot Sex on a Platter" was off the menu.
The nature of the game had changed: HIV was no longer a gay white man’s disease; if Magic Johnson got it, none of us were exempt. Suddenly, every night at the club—or at least every night you could remember past that third Rum and Coke—was called into question. Those one-night stands suddenly held some meaning. For many of us, our little black books had been as important as our Bibles, holding a salvation that was once taken for granted. Now, we wondered if the rules of engagement had been violated in the past; we looked for possible offenders, and hoped we hadn't been offenders ourselves.
This mentality went double in the sports world, where groupies were a daily staple for the promiscuous athlete. Athletes had their choice of women, be it at home games or on the road; the honeys congregated at the team hotels, restaurants—anywhere they could get within the radius of a ballplayer. It didn't matter if you were Magic Johnson or Jack Haley—if a woman spotted you coming off a team bus, she and her friends were at your disposal.
All shapes and sizes, all colors and all flavors. These weren't dimes man—we're talkin' quarters here. No one ever thought about the other side of that coin. Heads or tails—it was all good; the smaller head did all your thinking, fueling your appetite for destruction.
And then there was Magic.
At his press conference, he talked about how he would be a spokesperson for the disease, how he would do all that he could. What made this different from other announcements was that when a player contracted cancer or heart disease, he said he would beat it; when Magic talked about AIDS he said he fight it...and from the prognosis we gave him, he may as well have been fighting Mike Tyson—blindfolded and with no gloves on.
As I watched him, I tried to look down the road two or three years. Would Magic still be around? Would he be a shell of himself, withering away before our eyes? I thought about it for awhile, and then I stopped. I had to. I didn’t want to see what was coming.
Fifteen years later?
Magic is a picture of health, with a beautiful, uninfected wife and three flawless children. He's even put on a good thirty pounds.
And by some reports, there's no trace of the HIV virus in his body.
But what about the rest of us? Fifteen years later, are we still scared straight?
The short answer is no. The rate of AIDS in the African-American community is on the rise. In 2002, HIV/AIDS was among the three leading causes of death for African-American males aged 25 to 54 years, and among the four leading causes of death for African-American women in the same bracket. It was the number one killer for black women between the ages of 25 and 34.
The education is out there, but we seem to be stuck with that same old attitude: "It can’t happen to me." Victims are skewing younger because teen pregnancy is on the rise, and teens are opting for the gay lifestyle before they're old enough to really choose a path in the life. Lack of knowledge makes the numbers climb higher.
We're losing the battle and our children are the casualties. The Generation of Bling won't heed the warnings, and they're paying with their lives. Our kids are at once the most informed and most ignorant generation in history, raised on sex at a time when whatever you catch can't be cured with a simple antibiotic. This isn't the 1960s.
Earvin Johnson has done well for himself in the fifteen years since his announcement. He and his family are a vision of domestic bliss. He is a successful businessman, with several companies to his name. But he's not stopping there.
His ultimate battle remains with the disease that has claimed many and will claim many more. He knows better than anyone that we're all—all—vulnerable. He continues to put his time, money, and energy into the fight.
Fifteen years later?
Sounds like the same old Magic to me: always looking for that next assist.