Last week AppleTV+ dropped a bucket load of sports-themed original documentaries. The showpiece of the bunch is They Call Me Magic, a four-part docu-series about the Los Angeles Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The documentary provides a pretty standard appraisal of Magic Johnson’s career, from his high school days until his forced retirement during the 1991-1992 NBA season. It’s a textbook example of how modern day hagiography works. Get a documentary or biopic made of you that celebrates the highs while tacitly acknowledging some shortcomings here and there. In the case of NBA greats, Magic pretty much borrows the template from Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance. In an interview on The View, the former Los Angeles Lakers point guard pretty much acknowledges that They Call Me Magic was directly inspired by the film.
According to The Grio,
The former Lakers point guard, now a successful businessman and entrepreneur, appeared on The View to promote They Call Me Magic, which explores Johnson’s life and career.
Co-host Joy Behar asked Johnson what prompted him to do the docuseries now streaming on Apple TV. His response: “Michael Jordan did Last Dance, and I was in his incredible doc series, and just the last episode, my phone started ringing a lot: ‘It’s your turn now. When are you going to do yours?’”
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that and, for NBA fans, is satisfying enough. He wasn’t called Magic for no reason and watching him again, even in archival clips, made every minute worth it. That said, the film oddly underplays the rivalry between Magic and Bird in the NBA. There’s not even a clip of the Celtics winning the championship.
Of course, a major turning point in the film, Magic’s career, and his life, in general, was his positive HIV diagnosis in 1991. It put a screeching halt to his career while he was at the tail-end of his peak. He still had a lot of good basketball years ahead of him.
The film does an adequate job in communicating just how scary things had become during the late 1980s and early 1990s regarding HIV/AIDS. The science behind the human immunodeficiency virus was still being established and, as you can tell from current Covid-19 work, getting to the facts can get a bit messy. (But hey, that’s science.) Back then, it was widely believed that it was possible to become infected with HIV from using public toilet seats, or brushing up against an HIV-positive person’s sweat, or in Magic Johnson’s case, playing basketball with an HIV-positive person with a hangnail.
Much to his credit, Magic Johnson publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with HIV and he quickly became the face for a disease that had been considered a disease that only infected gays, intravenous drug users, and Haitians (this last category is often glossed over these days). Thanks in part to Magic and his efforts, a less hysterical public perception of the disease evolved. Not only that, thanks to his fund-raising bankability, a lot of money was raised for HIV/AIDS research.
Looking back on those days, it should be possible to extrapolate a lot of positive lessons applicable to the current pandemic. But of course, it’s 2022 and social media exists which in turn entitles anyone with a smartphone to have their own personal facts which are validated simply by being sent whirling into the cybervoid.
They Call Me Magic made me think of a tweet I had read a few months back by conservative talking head Jesse Kelly. Now, he’s not exactly known for being measured in his views and has a masterful ability to say things that are supposed to trigger high strung liberals (and admittedly, this being 2022 there are a whole lot of them). That’s fine. He’s usually wrong and/or juvenile but hey it’s his thing. Not gonna knock the man’s hustle. Thankfully, the constant verbal vomit flowing from his fingers to his phone brought up the conspiracy theory that Magic Johnson never had HIV/AIDS, that he was coerced into faking it by “powerful people”, and that the alt-right’s bête noir, Anthony Fauci was involved in the affair.
Interestingly, Jesse Kelly has since deleted the tweet, so that pretty much torpedoed my Twitter bookmark. And unfortunately, I was too lazy to take a screenshot. That said, all is not lost… People’s replies to his tweet still exist and are basically footprints of Kelly’s tweet.
You get the picture.
To be fair, the Magic-never-had-AIDS conspiracy theory has been doing the rounds for a long time and pops up now and again.
Recently, Charlamagne Tha God discussed it in a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
And back in 2008, a pair of radio show hosts touched on the topic briefly. Per Bleacher Report,
Chris Baker and Langdon Perry were talking about Magic Johnson after bringing up the topic of health care isn’t a basic right. Then Perry asked about certain diseases that can be treated by medicine throughout a lifetime. Then the two brought up Magic Johnson and Aids. Here’s what was said.
Baker responded, “Like Magic Johnson?”
Perry replied, “Like Magic with his faked AIDS. Magic faked AIDS.”
Baker said, “You think Magic faked AIDS for sympathy?”
Perry replied, “I’m convinced that Magic faked AIDS.”
“Me too,” Baker said.
The new twist seems to be the inclusion of Fauci in the story. If you stop and think about it, it makes sense because, well, this is 2022 and the NAIAD director is the embodiment of the political fringe’s mass derangement. Since he played such a central role in the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Magic Johnson conspiracy theory was tailor made for his inclusion. And the fact that Fauci had played a role in convincing Magic to become the face of AIDS? Boom. A match made in heaven.
As for the conspiracy theory itself, it’s mostly built on people’s, shall we call it, lack of understanding of basic HIV/AIDS science. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that how was it possible that Magic had AIDS but didn’t die from it after 30 years. They are partially correct in that if Magic had AIDS, he would most likely have died. The fact is that he never developed full-blown AIDS. He is HIV+ which means his immune system never breached the threshold where the virus could overwhelm his body. He was fortunate, especially considering how low his CD4+ count had become. Either way, Magic never had AIDS. He is HIV+. Massive difference.
Skeptics also point out the fact that stars like Freddie Mercury and Easy-E had died of AIDS so quickly and that they, presumably, were wealthy enough to afford the top medical care Magic Johnson had. Therefore, something is a little fishy about Magic making through. This analysis fails on a couple of fronts. First of all, there’s the lack of understanding of the difference between being HIV+ and developing full blown AIDS.
The argument also falls flat in the wealthy-access-to-medicine argument. By the time Mercury and Easy-E made their announcements, they were well into their AIDS stages and back in those days, once you made it that far, the end came swiftly and painfully. Magic made his announcement at a much earlier stage and that is why he was able to be treated. Let it be said, Magic was also a bit lucky that he became HIV+ when he did. By then treatments were beginning to make it to market and he was able to avoid full blown AIDS until anti-retroviral cocktails revolutionized HIV/AIDS therapy.
And the fact that people are so amazed that HIV is essentially undetectable in Magic’s blood stream just demonstrates an unfamiliarity with HIV ARVs. Undetectable does not mean gone, nor does it mean he’s cured by any stretch of the imagination. It just means that the virus is not present at any significantly detectable levels. But they’re still there. Hiding. Laying low. As HIV is notorious for doing. If he stopped his ARV regimen, rest assured the virus would begin to increase again.
Since, this article is technically about They Call Me Magic, I’ll keep the conspiracy theory duck-shoot limited to Magic Johnson angles which is all for the better. Debunking the Fauci stuff would take too much time.
Bottom line, They Call Me Magic is a great way to indulge in some NBA fanboy/girl hagiography. The dishes still amaze.
WORDS: Marc Landas.
IMAGE CREDIT: AppleTV+