Magic Johnson at an AIDS Healthcare Foundation clinic in Los Angeles that was named in his honor.

Magic Johnson at an AIDS Healthcare Foundation clinic in Los Angeles that was named in his honor. (Robert Lachman / Los Angeles Times / February 15, 2005)

Bob Costas, the television sports analyst widely considered one of the best in the country, was no different from many athletes, sports fans and basketball experts 20 years ago Monday when Magic Johnson held a news conference to tell the world he was HIV-positive.

"I was stunned," Costas said, "and my immediate thought was, knowing what we thought we knew about HIV, we would watch Magic Johnson die a public death, that he would waste away. This was what we thought we understood about the virus, that his days were numbered."

Now the number of days Johnson has ahead of him seems limitless when the strong, healthy-looking basketball great, onetime coach, voluble television commentator and successful businessman puts on his smile and optimism and shakes your hand.

Chris Mullin, who played with Johnson on the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, said that when he sees Johnson anywhere, his own big hand disappears into Johnson's bigger hands. "It makes you remember," Mullin said, "just how strong he is."

How strong he is. Not was.

Twenty years later, some of the men who played with or against Johnson or who stood by his side when he made the HIV announcement say what Costas said.

That they thought Magic would die, sooner rather than later, and that they dreaded what they might watch. "That he would just waste away," Mullin said. "That's what we thought we knew."

Kenny Smith, now a TNT studio analyst, said the moment he heard Johnson's announcement on Nov. 7, 1991, he said one word.

"Jesus," Smith said. "I wasn't educated at all on what was going on with the virus. It turns out, unfortunately for him, fortunately for us, he was the best man for the job. His job was educating people on what HIV was. He helped me learn a totally new perspective. God doesn't give us anything we can't handle, that seemed to be Magic's attitude.

"I don't know if there was another person alive, not just athlete, but person, who had such goodwill earned up, who could have told us what he told us and have people feel sympathy instead of something else."

Smith was the Houston Rockets' team representative in 1991, and after Johnson's announcement, the NBA asked all the team reps to attend an informational seminar about the virus and to return to their teams and, as Smith said, "educate."

"Even some of the trainers, still working with the team at the time, weren't educated," Smith said. "Even people we trusted with our bodies at the time didn't really know much. The day Magic spoke was the day some truth was brought into the situation to people who are sometimes resistant to education."

It wasn't only basketball players who heard Johnson on that day and expected only sadness and illness to follow.

Michael Weinstein, president and co-founder of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), said the general feeling in the HIV and AIDS community was simple. "He won't be with us much longer," Weinstein said.

Now, Weinstein said, Johnson is a symbol that people can live well with the disease. AHF billboards often feature Johnson's broad, smiling face and Johnson's name and image are on mobile testing sites and clinics around the country because Johnson is willing to be a partner to the foundation.

Michael Gottlieb, an HIV/AIDS physician from Los Angeles who, in 1981 co-wrote a study identifying AIDS as a new disease, said he remembers vividly watching Johnson play basketball after making his diagnosis public and saw another player kiss him on the head after a winning game.

"I contrasted that with the attitudes of some players and their willingness to play basketball with him or against him because of exposure to HIV through injuries," he said. "It was a poignant moment."

Gottlieb said that Johnson stands as "living proof" of medical progress in the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

"For many," Gottlieb said, "HIV is a manageable condition. I heard some say that because he's wealthy he must be getting special treatments, but it's important to communicate that many people are getting the same results through standard therapy."