How Magic Johnson and the NBA transcended sport at the 1992 All-Star game

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February 9, 1992. Orlando, Florida.

Almost 15,000 fans are packed into the Orlando Arena to watch an NBA All-Star game that includes so many star names and future Hall of Famers that it beggars belief.

But, whilst the likes of Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley are in attendance, all the talk centres around Earvin 'Magic' Johnson.

Three months before the showdown between the East and the West - on November 7, 1991 -Magic had revealed to the world that he was HIV-positive.The five-time NBA champion, and the league's Most Valuable Player as recently as 1990, would be retiring from the game with immediate effect. 

1992 was to mark the year AIDS became the number one killer of U.S. males in the 25-44 age bracket and, amidst a climate of uncertainty and fear concerning HIV and the AIDS virus, thoughts turned to just how long Magic had left to live.

Johnson's return to play in the All-Star game was, then, one of those rare moments that truly transcends sport.

Statement game

Not only was it a chance for Magic to say goodbye to the game on his terms, but it was an opportunity to dispel some of the stigmas associated with HIV at a time when 'epidemic' and 'death sentence' were terms widely used.

Although most in the NBA and the media had championed the one-off appearance, Johnson's planned return wasn't without its detractors.

In the run-up to the game, there were question marks over whether Johnson - voted in by fans despite not playing a single regular-season game that season - would be physically capable of competing at the highest level. There were genuine concerns the disease would have ravaged his body.

Several high-profile players, meanwhile, had also voiced their concerns about sharing a court with Magic due to health risks, including an outspoken Karl Malone.

Ultimately, though, thanks to efforts led by NBA commissioner David Stern, and with help from a players meeting orchestrated by Isiah Thomas, number 32 was able to take to the court. Tim Hardaway was the man to give up his starting spot.

And, from the moment the Eastern Conference roster, led by Thomas, crossed the hardwood to hug and greet Magic as the teams were being announced, it was clear this was more than a retirement game. This was a show of solidarity.

Four quarters and 25 points later, it was also a timely show of Magic's ability with a basketball in hand.

Magic's 29 minutes on the court were punctuated with all the flair, skill and guile fans had come to expect from the man who had helped resurrect the league over the previous two decades.

When the 32-year-old drained a long three-pointer with 20 seconds left on the clock, both teams simply stopped play and allowed time to wind down - giving Magic the last word.

The game's MVP award would follow, and, recalling the game last week, Johnson summed up just how valuable the game was to him:

"I needed something good to happen in my life," the now 56-year-old told ESPN.

"[Something] to say, ‘Earvin, you’re gonna live for a long time, and you’re gonna beat this.’ And that game did that for me.”


The game has quite rightly taken its place in NBA legend, and it helped change the way the wider world understood HIV.

Regardless of how he performed on the day, Johnson's one-off return in February '92 would have been treated as a success story. The fact, though, that he was still able to mix it with the best the NBA had to offer was perhaps the most important aspect of the whole occasion.

Magic had already become a voice to raise awareness about the issue, now, as people watched on, he added physical evidence that an HIV diagnosis didn't have to be a death sentence.

In playing alongside him, Johnson's teammates put on a show of solidarity that was incredibly important at the time.


Of course, Johnson's participation didn't magically solve the world's HIV and AIDS crisis. Millions of people continue to be affected by the virus' today as the fight to end its impact continues. 

The 1992 NBA All-Star game did, though, help broach the subject to a new demographic - breaking down boundaries in the process. 

Speaking on Johnson's diagnosis, Phil Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS institute told "It completely changed the perception of HIV in the United States."

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