The Great Ball Handler

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Why you should care

Because making the most out of a miserable situation with a well-executed pivot is the mark of a champion.

In early November, 23 years ago, after a press conference in which noted sports figure Magic Johnson, the LA Lakers point guard, unexpectedly announced his retirement, the world suddenly had its second high-profile celebrity HIV case. Its first had been actor Rock Hudson, but while Hudson’s story of a gay, closeted man came to be “typical” of how people understood the disease back then, Johnson broke the mold by being neither gay nor closeted — and by all appearances, healthy as a freaking horse.

Healthy enough for five NBA championships, three MVP grabs and a list of on-court accomplishments that seemed to run counter to the conventional wisdom of the day about what it meant to have this disease. And despite that initial decision to step off the court, Johnson not only played in the subsequent 1992 Olympics, but headed back to the NBA as a coach and a player over the course of the ’90s.

You see, Johnson had a chance to make a difference in the way the disease was perceived, and he took it. Because out of all of the ways that he could have handled it — avoidance, deceit, blame-laying, straight-up lying — he did none of the above. By changing how he himself had been thinking about the disease, he helped America change how we thought about an illness that some at the time said was a product of “God’s judgment.”

So while it’s easy to embrace change once things have changed, remembering what it took to get there? Yeah. Just what we’re about to do.

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