TORONTO - Jody cried when he heard the news about Magic Johnson, first from sadness then afterwards admitted to a feeling of elation.
He was 40 years old at the time, paper-thin skinny, droopy eyed, living on assistance and dying of AIDS. He had made the walk on that now famous day from Casey House to the office of PWA (Toronto People With Aids), everyone in his small but troubled world with some kind of connection to AIDS, talking about the Magic Johnson announcement.
“I know this sounds terrible, but in my world, most people I talked to today are thrilled that Magic is HIV positive. I mean, really thrilled. They think it’s fantastic,” he said back then. “You don’t know how hard it is. Admitting it. Saying you’re HIV positive. Going public. Everyone I know went through a period of denial. I had three tests before I admitted it and I still didn’t believe it until I got sick.
“But Magic stood up and said he was going to do something about it. He said he was going to keep on living. No one has ever said before.”
No one had ever said that before and no one had ever done it: Twenty years later, miraculously, impossibly, Earvin (Magic) Johnson is very much alive. He was Superman on the basketball court and for a disease that is supposed to equate to a life sentence, he has been Superman off the court as well. It was rare for any man to beat HIV, but it helps when you’re an all-world physical specimen, when you have unlimited resources and access to the best physicians and most experimental of drugs.
“God couldn’t have picked a more perfect spokesman for AIDS," Jody said in 1991. “What a figure he can be. I know that’s what so many of us are hoping for.”
Outside Casey House that November day, the place that June Callwood built, there were at least 10 people on the porch, all of them seemed to be smiling. “On a cold day,” said Jody, “you’d never see anybody outside. It was almost, like, magic. They were all smiling. It was like a signal.”
A rare day of reflection and community for those suffering with HIV.
“You don’t understand what it’s like," Jody said. “It’s like having leprosy. You’re treated like you’re a leper. I don’t think there are many people being more mistreated than AIDS victims. People won’t even look you in the face. It’s like you don’t exist.
“I kept thinking, 'If Magic can make this acceptable, what a gift that would be.' I’ve talked to a lot of others (AIDS victims) and they’re thinking the same thing. That’s what we’re hoping for. I hope this will cause the lessening of the discrimination. It’s a tragedy for him. But for AIDS, I can’t think of anything better that could happen. Imagine the kind of money he should be able to generate for the disease. I can’t think of anyone else who could generate this kind of money. As I understand it, they’re getting much better drugs but they’re still in the development stages. You need a lot of money to make a difference.
“But even more important, Magic will get people talking about AIDS. The more people talk about a problem, the better things will get. You could even see how different it was today. I saw more people wearing Lakers’ clothes. It was like it was a tribute to Magic. People were showing their support. That was uplifting."
The basketball star and entrepreneur, Magic Johnson, has been a living symbol for HIV but the disease has not gone away. In North America, the United Nations statistics show that HIV and AIDS is on the decline, albeit not significantly. The same cannot be said of other places, primarily African nations, where AIDS is considered either epidemic or pandemic: More than 22 million people are afflicted with AIDS in Africa. That tragedy continues on long after Johnson brought a North American face and name to HIV.
Somehow he is still alive and well at the age of 52, with his engaging signature smile, his face regularly on television, his name household and admired and with his HIV never turning to AIDS. His health is seemingly fine. Consider him one of he lucky ones. My older brother, Jody, didn’t get the chance to live to 52. Three years and three months after the Magic Johnson announcement, what was left of him succumbed at the young age of 43.