Twenty-five years ago today, Magic Johnson announced he had HIV
Everyone knows or has mourned an Earvin — and everyone knows or mourned a ‘Debra’
Karen rarely speaks about her ghost of a friend, Debra. It’s been over 20 years since they last saw each other.
Karen — my mother — is sitting under a hair dryer in her kitchen. She’s preparing for a trip to North Carolina A&T from her home in South Chesterfield, Virginia. The Aggies played her alma mater, South Carolina State, on Nov. 5 in one of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s more storied rivalries. A&T would use a 14-point fourth quarter to escape with a 30-20 victory on Saturday. But, for now, though, my mother asks me about my brother. He’s my roommate. He’s fine, at work. She asks me if I voted. Yes. And when I tell her I nearly wrote first lady Michelle Obama’s name on the ballot, she lets out a good laugh.
“Michelle’s my girl,” she said. “She’s got my vote if she ever decides to run.”
The conversation somehow shifts to Earvin “Magic” Johnson, whom she praises for recently donating $2.5 million to the School of Business at S.C. State. My mother isn’t the biggest basketball fan — though she’s fascinated with Joakim Noah’s hair — but she always enjoyed watching Johnson play. Especially against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. “His smile wasn’t too bad to look at either,” she said with a laugh. And she can’t stop praising the fact that he’s turned himself into “quite the one-man conglomerate.”
I ask her what she remembers about Nov. 7, 1991. The date doesn’t initially ring a bell. Then she realizes that 25 years ago, on this date, Johnson announced that he’d contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
My mother’s jovial mood turns immediately reflective and apprehensive. She recalls that day — and her anger at Johnson. As a single mother, twice divorced, the pain of Johnson’s infidelity was familiar. And her fear was that one of the most beloved athletes on the planet would — like so many AIDS victims she read about in the ’80s — wither away. My mother also knows where the conversation is headed. Three decades later, and she’s still haunted. She never got to tell Debra goodbye.
HIV/AIDS wasn’t discovered on Nov. 7, 1991, when Johnson told the world he was retiring from basketball, effective immediately. The disease itself had been around roughly a decade — HIV claimed over 14,000 lives in the ’80s. Its first mention came on June 5, 1981, in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The death toll was rising so quickly with so little information about the disease that people “didn’t want you to kiss them on the cheek.”
By 1984, AIDS was a full-blown epidemic, with 4,251 deaths in the United States alone. In the United States the disease was referred as “the gay plague” for the ravaging effects it was having on the LGBT community. “You just heard about something that was killing all these people. And no one had a cure for it,” said my mom, still under the hair dryer. Between HIV/AIDS, the crack-cocaine tsunami and President Ronald Reagan’s recession, “It was scary [in the ’80s].”
Johnson wasn’t the first celebrity to contract the virus. That, by all accounts, would be Rock Hudson. Hudson, a 1950s and ’60s heartthrob, was the Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Bradley Cooper, and Matthew McConaughey of his era. Hudson’s image — the white, incredibly attractive All-American man — was only more impressive given a portfolio that included roles in rom-coms like Pillow Talk alongside Doris Day, as well as dramas like All That Heaven Allows, Giant, A Farewell To Arms, Magnificent Obsession and more. He was a regular fixture on the smaller screen, too, starring as a police chief in McMillan & Wife from 1971-1977. Dating as early in his career as the late ’50s, rumors of Hudson being gay ran rampant. Those closest to Hudson knew of his sexuality long before he was eventually outed; a move which would have been, in his words, “career suicide” had he done so during the peak of his popularity.
On May 15, 1984, Hudson attended a dinner at the White House thrown by close friends Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Photos revealed a mole on the side of the movie star’s neck. Those close to Hudson urged him to get a biopsy. Hudson had Kaposi’s sarcoma — a type of skin cancer that often develops in people infected with HIV. A second biopsy corroborated the results on June 5, 1984 — three years to the day HIV/AIDS first made its way into American verbiage.
That very same summer, the then-president of American Airlines asked if “gay” was an acronym for “got AIDS yet?” while opening a breakfast at the Republican National Convention. A year later, Hudson reached out to Nancy Reagan, begging her to help him obtain a transfer to Percy Military Hospital in France, particularly to see specialist Dr. Dominique Dormant. Hudson’s request was denied. He died nine weeks later.
Reagan’s administration viewed HIV/AIDS as a joke. Reagan himself refused to publicly mention the disease until 1985. By then, over 5,000 people had lost their lives. That same year, African-Americans took a stand with the creation of the first black AIDS organization. In 1986, the National Conference on AIDS in the Black Community was held, the first of its kind. Even still, Reagan’s major address regarding the epidemic didn’t occur until May 31, 1987. More than 25,000 people were dead by then. My mom and Debra saw all of this play out in the 1980s. But neither knew how close to home the disease would hit in the coming years.
On Nov. 7, 1991, HIV/AIDS had a high-profile black heterosexual face.
Johnson is the greatest point guard to ever walk the planet. A five-time world champion, three-time league and Finals MVP and a man who played in the Finals nine of his 12 professional seasons, or for 75 percent of his career. On that autumn day, Johnson announced he had HIV. He stood at a podium in Inglewood, California, flanked by then-NBA commissioner David Stern, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. For a man staring a death-sentence disease in the face, he seemed remarkably at peace.
Like many in America on that day, and in the months after, my mother, then a speech pathologist at the same elementary school I attended, felt a mixture of confusion, curiosity, sympathy and anger. How could Magic do that to his family? They say this is a gay disease, so is Magic gay? When did he catch it? How long does he have to live? Why do we have to watch another black man die?
Johnson never hid his playboy days. Johnson got around. He’s said he’s lost count of the number of women he slept with. So a lot of my mother’s praise even now goes to Cookie Johnson, Johnson’s wife of only two months at the time of the announcement. She was pregnant with their son, E.J., and she was there beside him at the podium. “That sister is the epitome of strong,” she said. “I’m pretty sure if I met her I might shed a tear. I’m not sure how she did it.” A quarter-century later, my mother has forgiven Johnson for betraying his family.
There was of course Liberace; Freddie Mercury; Alvin Ailey; Max Robinson, the country’s first black network news anchorman; Howard Rollins; designer Willi Smith, singer/songwriter Sylvester; and singer Jermaine Stewart. But my mother talks the most about the AIDS-related death of tennis legend Arthur Ashe — who lashed out in his 1993 memoir, Days of Grace, saying Johnson’s (and Wilt Chamberlain’s) sexual promiscuity caused a “certain amount of racial embarrassment.” My mom often remembers with sadness Olympic diver Greg Louganis announcing he had the virus in February 1995. And she recalls the death of hip-hop titan Eric “Eazy-E” Wright a month later.
But it’s Johnson who remains the lynchpin. She applauds how he has never shied away from spreading awareness about the disease. “What he did was change the stigma about the disease. If Magic could catch it, anyone could,” my mom said, finally out from under the hair dryer. Perhaps because talking about Johnson is her way of connecting with a friend she lost nearly 25 years ago.
My mom met Debra in the early ’80s. She can’t remember exactly which year, but they’d always hang out when Debra came to visit relatives in South Carolina. They’d go shopping, go out to eat, to the movies. The regular things friends do. Our families knew each other, so in a sense they matured through post-college adulthood together. They weren’t best friends, but close enough to check on each other often during the days when long-distance phone calls were a budgetary expense.
By the early ’90s, both had families of their own. Both had full-time jobs. Both had sons. I’m a few years older than Debra’s son, whom she had with a man before she got married, and whose name is withheld here. Life happened, and Debra and Karen lost contact. Nothing malicious or the result of a falling-out, but they didn’t speak for nearly a year.
Then my mother received a call. “I just remember,” her voice trails off. “[I] … got a call from her family saying Debra had died. From AIDS.” She hadn’t known Debra was even sick. Debra’s one of tens of thousands of black women to perish from the disease, one that had already had paralyzing effects on black women as far back as 1988. HIV/AIDS, by 2004, was the leading cause of death for black women 25-34. It’s a disease that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in a 2007 Howard University debate that if those same numbers were true for white women, America would be in “outraged outcry.” “To this day, I wish I would’ve known,” my mom said of Debra. “I could’ve gone down there to see her. To tell her I love her.”
Debra’s marriage was failing. According to my mother, when Debra finally mustered the strength to leave, her husband delivered a remark so vicious, so evil, so grotesque: I don’t know where you think you’re going, Debra’s husband allegedly said. I gave you AIDS. We’re both going to die.
What resonates with me more than anything else, all these years later, is visualizing Debra’s reaction. Her knees probably weakened. Tears probably instantly formed. I know she was angry. I know she shocked. I know she was scared. The pain lingers because, at that very moment, Debra was alone. Minutes before, she’d taken control of her life by choosing to leave. Now she saw death around the corner. And the man she had pledged her life to — and vice versa — was the cause.
Debra and her son eventually moved back home with her parents. She went through some treatments, though it only prolonged the inevitable. Debra died from AIDS. Even now my mom wonders if more could have been done to save her friend. I recite Kanye West’s lyrics from 2005’s Roses to her: You know the best medicine/ Go to people that’s paid/ If Magic Johnson got a cure for AIDS/ And all the broke m—–f—— passed away/ You telling me if my grandma’s in the NBA/ Right now she’d be OK?
“That’s how I feel about Debra,” my mother said. “She didn’t have enough money to save her life. I don’t think that’s right, but what can you do?”
My mom Karen has remained in contact with Debra’s family throughout the years. And she visits them whenever she’s in South Carolina — which is often during the fall since she’s in Orangeburg for every S.C. State football game. She often speaks to Debra’s son. It’s her way of remaining in contact with a friend she lost far too soon. It’s her way of staying true to a promise made to herself shortly after Debra’s funeral. “Ever since then I’ve made it a mission to just keep in contact with people,” she said. “I don’t wanna make that same mistake again. It hurts too bad.”
All day today she’ll see tributes to Johnson’s groundbreaking announcement a quarter-century ago. We’ll all be reminded that African-Americans continue to experience the greatest burden of HIV. That African-Americans (as of 2014) represented about 12 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44 percent (19,540) of HIV diagnoses. We’ll try to rejoice that diagnoses among all women have declined 40 percent, and among African-American women, diagnoses declined 42 percent.
My mom will smile, because at the end of the day, she’s happy that Johnson spoke his faith into existence.“I plan on going on, living for a long time,” Johnson said with a smile on what had to be the most difficult day of his life. “Bugging you guys like I always have. So you’ll see me around.” But she can’t see Johnson without thinking of Debra.
“That’s life,” said my mother. Her college classmates, the ones she rides down to North Carolina A&T with for the game, are laughing in the background. My mom’s voice hasn’t cracked the entire conversation, but the strain in her voice hasn’t left since she brought up Debra some 20 minutes before. “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out why,” said Karen. “Peace and blessings to Magic and Cookie. But R.I.P. my girl Debbie.”
“Lord,” she said after a pause, “do I miss her.” She tells me she loves me before getting off the phone.