[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]
On genuine low and high points for the legendary Lakers star, and what they both exemplify.
I’ve written before, in this post as well as in the chapter on AIDS epidemic histories and literature in my fourth book, that Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement of his HIV-positive status marked a pivotal turning point in public conversations about the disease. I certainly believe that’s the case (and am of course not alone in arguing the point), but at the same time it’d be important not to let a desire to consider the historical big picture lead us to skip too quickly past what the moment meant for Johnson and his family. Even if we leave aside the moment’s personal (such as Johnson’s subsequent confessions of serial infidelity) and professional (his immediate, although not permanent, departure from the NBA) ramifications for Johnson, his wife Cookie, and their young family, in 1991 HIV and AIDS were still (and understandably, given the statistics) perceived as death sentences. While Johnson has been able to battle the disease quite successfully (it seems) for the three decades since his announcement, that subsequent history shouldn’t cloud our perspective on what his diagnosis and situation meant, for him and everyone around him, in 1991. It was as painful and frightening a moment as any faced by an American athlete or celebrity in the era.
While Johnson’s battle against that HIV diagnosis has continued for these 30 subsequent years, his moves forward from that moment and toward another career high point began much more rapidly than that. In 1994, less than three years after his announcement, Johnson and his Johnson Development Corporation announced their plan for Magic Johnson Theatres, a line of movie theaters that would open in and provide entertainment options, as well as jobs and revitalization, for urban communities. The first such theater, the Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15, opened in South Central Los Angeles in 1995; a second, the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, opened in New York in 2000, and more followed in Cleveland, Atlanta, and other cities. While Johnson’s achievements will always be defined first by his basketball stardom and successes, it’s fair to say that on the court he was one of a number of great players, present and past (if a unique one to be sure)—whereas his theaters represent a more distinctive and singular vision and achievement, within their communities and in American business overall. Although many of the theaters have changed ownership in the decades since, they established a new model for both locations and styles of movie theaters (and other urban developments)—and in any case, as with Johnson’s HIV announcement, subsequent events shouldn’t elide what this moment in Johnson’s life and career meant at the time.
So for Johnson, these two moments and stories reflect contrasting yet nearly concurrent low and high points, a particularly striking spectrum in a life that’s been consistently mercurial. If we take a step back and examine them in relationship to the African American community, however, I would argue that they together represent a period of extreme social and cultural shifts on both destructive and productive levels. Johnson’s theaters offer one illustration among many—alongside films like Boyz in the Hood (1991), New Jack City (1991), and Menace 2 Society (1993) and the explosion in popularity of gangsta rap, among other examples—of how African American urban communities were becoming central to American popular culture in the 1990s. Yet at the same time, such communities were facing significant new threats, from the war on drugs and the rise of mass incarceration to, yes, the AIDS epidemic; while the disease was largely associated with gay communities at the time of Johnson’s announcement, by the end of the 90s it would be just as fully linked to impoverished, and often African American, inner city communities. While Johnson’s personal battle with HIV certainly differs from that communal epidemic, the presence in his life and career of both that battle and an economic and cultural transformation of urban spaces reflects a similar spectrum of danger and possibility for the African American community in this same period.
Next bball story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?