Two major events rocked the L.A. sports scene and beyond in the 1990s: O.J. Simpson’s Bronco chase, and Magic Johnson announcing the abrupt end of his basketball career because he had contracted the HIV virus. ESPN has now offered memorable documentaries on both, with “The Announcement” capturing the former Laker star’s revelation, its impact on the league and society, and his surprisingly robust second act. Johnson went public more than 20 years ago, but reliving the story has a timeless quality — and even provides a happy ending.
Director Nelson George devotes about half the film to setting up who Johnson was and what he meant to Los Angeles before learning he was HIV positive. “All I heard was a death sentence,” Johnson recalls, as did most of his fans, who keenly felt the tragedy of a brilliant career — and, everyone assumed, a charmed life — cut short.
Of course, anyone who follows sports, or even business, knows Johnson is still very much with us — wearing multiple hats as mogul, entrepreneur and basketball analyst. Yet even he acknowledges his vitality has proven almost a mixed blessing to AIDS education — demonstrating it’s possible to live with the disease but also mitigating efforts to warn people away from the “reckless” behavior that can lead to becoming ill.
In addition to Johnson and his wife Cookie — who was pregnant when he learned the sobering news — former NBA stars, coach Pat Riley, Johnson’s agent Lon Rosen, and Hollywood pals like Arsenio Hall and Chris Rock share recollections about how dire the situation seemed at the time, and Johnson’s grit and determination beyond the trademark smile.
Granted, having Johnson narrate his own story makes the documentary feel a bit more promotional than it should, especially with NBA Entertainment producing it. Still, there’s no denying the emotion in what transpired, firmly placing this in the same elite league with some of the sports network’s fine “30 for 30” documentaries.
Part of the gut punch about the prospect of Johnson dying so young was that few people ever seemed so joyously alive on a basketball court, and George captures that in his deft choice of clips. Still, the film becomes even more engrossing once Johnson is diagnosed and refuses to succumb to the disease or the limitations placed on him, even trying to mount an NBA comeback.
Other players — most notably and publicly, Utah’s Karl Malone — objected to sharing the court with a post-HIV Johnson, motivated by fear. So it’s perhaps appropriate the Utah star delivers the most cogent observation about Johnson, saying, “Tell me one other athlete that could have dealt with it like he did.”
In terms of framing what makes “The Announcement” so eminently worth watching, that’s about the only assist Magic needs.