Retired NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who released a high-profile commercial for Obamacare Wednesday, hit a less politically correct note in 1991, when he made his first public appearance after announcing his HIV-positive status.
Johnson is the star of a new White House video urging young to begin paying insurance premiums in order to hold up the tottering Rube Golberg machinery of the failing Affordable Care Act. (RELATED: Hocus Pocus: Magic Johnson pitches Obamacare [VIDEO])
But in his 1990s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, Johnson issued an unequivocal “NO-HOMO,” resulting in an enthusiastic six-second burst of applause from the talkmeister’s audience.
The appearance came in a context of widespread public fear of HIV and AIDS, which at that time had been known to the general public for less than a decade. The storied point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers announced in November 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV and would retire immediately. During a guest appearance the day after his announcement, Hall set Johnson up to distance himself from the popular perception that HIV was a “gay” virus.
Arsenio: There are misconceptions in the community in general. Obviously there are people who in the back of their mind think that this might be a homosexual-relationship disease. And you know… I’ll let you go from that.
Magic: Well, first of all, I’m far from being a homosexual, you already know that. (Sustained applause) And everybody close to me understands that. See that’s the whole thing, that they think it can only happen to gay people. And that’s so wrong. Even I was naïve to think hey, well, it can’t happen to me, only them or this and that. That’s so wrong. Heterosexuals are — it’s coming fast, and we have to prepare for it and practice safe sex.
In fact, the two decades following Johnson’s prediction did not see an epidemic of heterosexual AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV today, about the same number as 1991, and the vast majority of infections are still among gay and bisexual men.
Johnson, who went on to a successful post-basketball career as an entrepreneur and activist — and somewhat less success as a coach and late-night talk show host — spoke movingly in his 1991 appearance about public HIV fears and the outpouring of public support he received. (Before the applause that greeted his affirmation of heterosexuality, he received a two-minute ovation at the start of his appearance.)
“You don’t have to run from me like, ‘Oh, here come Magic, uh-oh!'” Johnson said. “You can still give me my hugs, my high fives, my kisses.” He went on to note that proper treatment would keep his HIV from turning into full-blown AIDS indefinitely. “So I’ll be here bugging your butt for a long time,” Johnson told Hall.
“Get your thinking caps on and put that cap on down there,” Johnson concluded, in a nod to condom use.
Interestingly, Johnson in 1991 also noted that he had enough money to live comfortably even with HIV, a position he seems to have moved away from in his work as an Obamacare pitch man. (RELATED: Magic Johnson gives Obamacare a high-five)
“When you think about it, it saved my life,” Johnson said in the White House spot. “When I took that physical and they told me that I had HIV over 22 years ago, if it wasn’t for that quality health care that I had and the plan that I had, I probably would have been dead… So I’m glad that I had good health insurance, a good plan.”
In another sign of how both Magic and public opinion have changed in the last 20 years, Johnson appeared on the revived Arsenio Hall Show last year to announce that his son is gay. That announcement got a round of applause that was almost exactly as long and loud as the earlier announcement that Magic himself was straight.
“The blessing is he came out, about a couple of months ago, and announced to the world that he is gay,” Johnson told Hall in September. “And I just love how the world supported him, (Applause) and Cookie and I love him to death. (More applause) It was interesting because you love your son, you love your kids and you want the best for them. And so I was really concerned to make sure that he was going to be OK. And Arsenio, four or five TV stations have called, they want to build shows around him. He’s getting all this incredible support. And so I want to thank everybody because you know, it was tough for him. Because he had to make that decision that he wanted to share with the world. And so I’m happy for him. Cookie and I just can’t be as proud as parents of our son.”