[9 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“We kind of fit,” says Cookie Johnson of her first meeting with Magic. Looking back on their courtship at Michigan State, she tells a remarkable story, about a former boyfriend who didn’t want her to go to that school precisely because he was worried she’d meet Magic Johnson, the superstar point guard for the Spartans. At the time, she’d never even heard of him, and so she laughed and reassured the boyfriend there was no risk.
Cookie’s relationship with Magic went through ups and downs, as recounted by The Announcement, premiering 11 March on ESPN. As its title indicates, Nelson George’s documentary is focused on Magic’s announcement that he was HIV positive. By the time he stood before reporters on 7 November 1991, Magic and Cookie both knew that she was negative, as was the child she was carrying. They also knew that she was committed to the marriage. She remembers him saying, “I can understand if you want to leave me.” She also remembers her response: “Are you kidding me?”
Today, Magic says that if she had left him then, he would have died, “I wouldn’t be here right now.” In photo after photo, and TV footage too, they do indeed look perfectly matched, both possessed of brilliant smiles and both strong, self-confident personalities. But even as they look like they “kind of fit,” the film underlines their differences too. As Magic phrases it, “I loved being around people, she was more private.” He was also, he says, committed to the team: “We were all about winning,” by way of describing his commitment to basketball. Looking back, he says this commitment meant he couldn’t get married; he even broke off wedding plans in 1985. “It takes all of me,” he says, “It’s a lot of energy that goes into winning a championship.” The documentary suggests this energy took some particular and familiar forms, with interviewees recalling the legendary post-game parties at LA’s Forum Club. Being committed to his game, Magic didn’t drink or smoke, he says. “But there were lots of other things out there to tempt me,” things he then called “big fun.”
These temptations, of course, were early on demonized in Magic’s story. As Sally Jenkins wrote in 1991, the common construal was that “Women gave him the AIDS virus.” Jenkins goes on to counter this narrative, arguing that in spite of the accolades then heaped on him for coming out as positive, that he was “model of courage,” that his making “sport of women,” like so many male celebrities in sports and elsewhere, only meant that he took advantage and made countless errors in judgment.
Today, the urge to blame those infected with HIV for their condition is surely less prevalent. But back then, it was crucial that Cookie stay with Magic—for his own health as well as the story that he went on to embody. He insists even now that the diagnosis was “My problem, my fault and I wanted only me to deal with it, I didn’t want my foolish attitude and the way I conducted myself to have to affect Cookie.” No matter his desire, every aspect of his being positive has affected and continues to affect Cookie, as well as their children. Cookie married Magic in 1991, the same year as the announcement; she explains now that there was no way to know when he became infected: “It could have been 10 years ago, who knows?”, she says, “There’s no way to prove it, so why drive yourself crazy? I just focused on what was in front of me.”
Her poise and good sense stand in contrast to who were fearful back then, who worried how they felt, believing Magic would be dead just months after the announcement. Charles Barkley says it was like facing “somewhat the death of a brother,” Riley appears at a game in New York, inviting “fans of Magic Johnson” to take a moment of silence. David Stern offers his own story of heroism, remembering how he insisted that the officially retired Magic be allowed to play at the ‘92 All Star Game. “I did have at least one owner suggest to me that we should do some polling,” Stern says, “Because I was getting us too far out front.” (The NBA—and David Stern!—out front: it’s a striking notion, now.)
That Magic and Cookie chose to make their struggle public speaks not only to his character (“He looked me in the eye,” says trainer Gary Vitti and said, “When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person”), but also to hers. After a couple of weeks where the Lakers’ story was Magic’s “flu-like symptoms,” he decided to make his condition public. “He looked at me,” Cookie says, “And he said, ‘I have to save as many people’s lives as I possibly can.’” Still, just after the announcement, retired from basketball, he lurched into an understandable depression, over what seemed, at the time, his imminent death, but also because of public prejudice against HIV, still associated with gays and drug users despite Ryan White’s valiant public life.
“I wasn’t Magic,” Magic remembers. “I was this guy who as just so devastated that he just gave up on life.” Cookie remembers her own worry, and also her understanding of her husband. She remembers telling him, “You need to get up off the couch and go do something.” His choices of action included more public appearances, as well as a brief tenure with President Bush’s National Commission on AIDS. Deciding that this organization was “not doing enough” to fight the disease, he then committed himself to working through his own Magic Johnson Foundation, as well as the United Nations.
As the film—sometimes with too much emphasis on a plink piano score—focuses on the education offered by Magic and Cookie throughout those early years, it includes as well a prominent villain from back then, Karl Malone. Stern suggests he played the role as if out of “central casting,” making public his concerns about playing with a briefly un-retired Magic, fearing contact on the court, contact that could include blood. “I don’t regret saying it because it happened,” says Malone now, describing himself as a “country bumpkin at the time.”
Now, he knows more about how the virus is contracted and also, that fear and self-willed ignorance are profoundly unhelpful responses. Magic “allowed guys like me to be more educated about it,” Malone says, “That’s special. I say he manned up.” As The Announcement tells it, so did Cookie.