The 1990s: Jordan takes flight; Magic scores vs HIV virus - Beaumont Enterprise
Michael Jordan had just won his first championship, beating Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals. They were poised to lead a Dream Team the world couldn’t wait to watch.
Yes, the NBA rolled into the fall of 1991 with unlimited promise.
Jordan, already basketball’s best and most popular player, was now on its top team. The 1992 Olympics were just a year away and for the first time would include NBA players, opening international doors the league previously couldn’t reach.
Then, suddenly, the foundation that never felt stronger was rocked by devastating news.
When Johnson announced that November he had contracted the HIV virus and would retire immediately, the sadness wasn’t just over the end of his career. There was fear for his life.
The virus caused AIDS, which was considered a death sentence at the time. People who got AIDS died, it was thought, just as Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury did the month Johnson retired. The consternation around the HIV virus then was similar to the mixed feelings the country and world has about COVID-19.
The NBA was still a relatively young league, just 45 years old, when Johnson disclosed his condition some fans thought one of its most beloved players was going to die.
Only Johnson didn’t die. Instead, he's credited for saving lives.
With the unrelenting backing of NBA Commissioner David Stern, Johnson would return to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, winning MVP honors and providing hope for health that had been mostly missing.
“We used to talk about it all the time, how we changed the world and we changed HIV and AIDS on that particular day, as well as we saved a lot of people’s lives that day,” Johnson tearfully recalled in 2020 at a memorial service for Stern.
But those conversations weren't the norm for the NBA at that time.
Unlike the active role players took in the 1950s and ‘60s, or take today when it comes to social issues and race relations, during the 1990s players largely shied away from issues outside of basketball.
Johnson and Larry Bird loathed discussions of race that was at the center of their rivalry in the 1980s. Jordan refused to endorse Black candidate Harvey Gantt in his 1990 North Carolina senate race against Jesse Helms.
When Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police in March of 1991, there was nothing from players similar to the Milwaukee Bucks' refusal to play a playoff game in 2020 following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
But Johnson's announcement forced the NBA to deal with an issue...
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