They gasped. They cried. They wondered not if, but when, the Lakers' star would die.
Johnson may have announced his abrupt retirement from a storied NBA career that brought the Lakers five NBA championships. But he also vowed he'd fight the disease and raise awareness about the virus that causes AIDS. The first time the general public saw that taking place was at the 1992 NBA All-Star game, when Johnson won MVP honors by posting a game-high 25 points and nine assists en route to the Western Conference's 153-113 victory over the East while playing with the disease.
"It had a great impact on the world," Johnson said in a conference call this week with reporters.
It's easy to look at it that way now as the 2012 NBA All-Star game in Orlando marks the same spot where Magic made his 12th All-Star appearance 20 years ago. Johnson then played on the 1992 Dream Team, which he maintains would beat the 2012 London team. His foundation has raised $10 million for HIV/AIDS research and charities. Johnson's business portfolio shows he's still ambitious: he owns 105 Starbucks franchises and a chain of movie theaters; he has sold his 4.5% ownership stake with the Lakers; and he has an interest in possibly purchasing the Dodgers. More important, Johnson still lives.
But rewind back to that 1992 NBA All-Star game. There remained plenty of uncertainty then among the general public and NBA players, such as Karl Malone and Mark Price, on the ramifications of Johnson competing. Yet the fans voted Johnson to play. NBA Commissioner David Stern approved the selection. Former Golden State Warriors guard Tim Hardaway gave up his starting spot for the former Lakers star.
"That was the therapy I needed to continue to live the rest of my life," Johnson said. "It was a great, great moment for me."
That's because Johnson hardly made a token appearance. He matched up with Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. Johnson faced physical defense from Dennis Rodman. Johnson made three consecutive three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Even before the game had officially ended, teammates embraced him at half court. Then he hit a three-pointer to give the West its 153-113 win.
A meaningless basket in a meaningless game meant everything.
"It just showed people Magic is back and he can play," Johnson said. "You can play against him. Nothing will happen. I think it did a lot for the world and HIV and AIDS."
E-mail the Lakers blog at firstname.lastname@example.org