Magic Johnson Changed America Forever
The narrative is well-worn like a shoe with a hole: the modern athlete lacks the political spine that previous generations showed. The Black American athlete in particular has historically been a revolutionary figure, demanding rights, challenging norms, reshaping America like activists in shorts. I’m talking about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommy Smyth, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, and others. Who’s taken up that mantle nowadays? Anyone? Republicans buy sneakers, too, as Michael Jordan said, so why risk making potential customers uncomfortable by using your status to improve the nation? But there is one contemporary athlete who’s a social activist on par with the past legends who straddled sports and politics. Magic Johnson, an activist in the personal-as-political sense, did something radical and necessary that altered America forever. He changed the way we see AIDS.
Magic the player did not seem to suggest the activist who was coming. He was too much of a happy performer to signal that. He played during the rise of hiphop, when the air was filled with the defiant spirit of Run-DMC and revolutionary energy of Public Enemy. But Magic recalled Louis Armstrong by playing like a genius while smiling wide and bright. Yet maybe the roots of Magic’s more political period were there all along. He was a leader. He was a revolutionary—he changed the way the point guard position was played. He was someone who brought people together—not just his teammates but the whole building. And, Magic was a crossover star loved by people who were non-Laker fans and non-basketball fans. I wonder if God thought, Who could get this virus and somehow turn it into a blessing? Magic sensed that He had. Shortly after he was told he was HIV positive he said, “God gave me this disease. He gave it to the right person.”