Michael Jordan had just won his first championship by defeating Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals. They were about to lead a Dream Team that the world was eager to see.
Yes, the NBA arrived in the fall of 1991 with unlimited promise.
Jordan, already the best and most popular basketball player, was now on his best team. The 1992 Olympics were a year away and would include NBA players for the first time, opening international doors the league couldn’t reach before.
Then, suddenly, the foundation that has never felt stronger was rocked by devastating news.
When Johnson announced that in November he had contracted the HIV virus and would be retiring immediately, the sadness wasn’t just about the end of his career. We feared for his life.
The virus caused AIDS, which was considered a death sentence at the time. People with AIDS were thought to die, as did Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury the month Johnson retired. The consternation around the HIV virus then was similar to the mixed feelings the country and the world have about COVID-19.
The NBA was still a relatively young league, at just 45, when Johnson revealed his condition, some fans thought one of his most beloved players was going to die.
Only Johnson is not dead. Instead, he is credited with saving lives.
With the unwavering support of NBA commissioner David Stern, Johnson would return to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, earning MVP honors and providing hope for a health that was lacking for most.
“We used to talk about it all the time, how we changed the world and we changed HIV and AIDS that day, as well as we saved a lot of people’s lives that day,” Johnson recalled in tears. in 2020 at a memorial service. for Stern.
But those conversations weren’t the norm for the NBA at that time.
Unlike the active role players played in the 1950s and 1960s, or today when it comes to social issues and race relations, during the 1990s players largely avoided issues outside of basketball. ball.
Johnson and Larry Bird hated the discussions of race that were central to their rivalry in the 1980s. Jordan refused to endorse black candidate Harvey Gantt during his 1990 North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms.
When Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police in March 1991, there was nothing like the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play a playoff game in 2020 after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.
But Johnson’s announcement forced the NBA to face a problem that many Americans weren’t ready to solve.
Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, said Johnson and the NBA helped change the way AIDS was viewed – a disease for gay people, and those who weren’t gay didn’t care. learn how it was contracted or spread.
“So in that context to have one of America’s most famous men and one of America’s most beloved men, Magic Johnson, announce that he had HIV/AIDS was a huge deal,” Starn said. “And it kind of marked the entry of AIDS into the national consciousness in a new way as well, because it made people realize that, hey, it’s not just a problem for gay Americans or for intravenous drug abusers.
“It’s a problem that everyone has to solve.”
The NBA has started educating its players. This included stars like Karl Malone, who like others feared playing with Johnson. Terry Lyons, a longtime NBA executive, recalled calls coming into the league office with questions they couldn’t answer.
A doctor was brought in to address players and coaches during the 1992 All-Star Weekend in Orlando. Public health education has become a responsibility within the league, a responsibility that has continued in the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson then went on schedule to the Barcelona Olympics, where the United States adapted what might still be the best team in the history of the sport. Opponents were subdued and fans thrilled by the Dream Team, a roster of NBA All-Stars who purposely blended their talents to play basketball at the highest level ever seen.
One of these stars shone brighter than the others.
Jordan, whose Bulls won their second of three straight titles in 1992, was on his own as a player and pitcher. There was no rival in how Johnson had Bird, or Wilt Chamberlain had Bill Russell. Jordan was the biggest thing in sports and one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
Not much changed even when he retired in 1993 and continued playing minor league baseball. Hakeem Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to the 1994 and 1995 titles, but Jordan returned to the NBA and quickly regained his grip on the league. He did not return it until he retired again.
Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Malone and John Stockton all fell victim to Jordan’s 6-0 mark in the NBA Finals, while Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller lost title shots when Jordan made derail their opportunities before they even had a chance.
With Johnson smashing the barriers off the court, Jordan had taken off and the NBA was soaring five years after one of the league’s darkest days.
The Bulls began a second three-game title streak in 1995-96 and Jordan was back full-time – things looked better than ever. NBA growth was evident with the expansion into Canada of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.
The Bulls became the first NBA team to win 70 games and they looked even bigger off the court, with the team of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson attracting global audiences. Shortly after winning the 1996 championship, the NBA welcomed one of its deepest draft classes, a group that included Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and Ray Allen.
Rookies knew they were entering the Jordanian NBA.
“Michael was on the Bulls when I came to the league, so I didn’t expect to win, that’s for sure,” Nash said. “It was in a sense alarming to play against him because you sat there and saw him win and win and win, and be so dominant and be someone who intimidated everybody.
Adding to the euphoria of the 1995-96 season was Magic Johnson, who was fit enough to come back and play 32 games.
Starn, who lived in San Francisco at the time of Johnson’s retirement and remembers the sadness of gay men who knew infected friends and were resigned to seeing them die, said seeing Johnson playing again gave hope that drugs had prevented AIDS from being a death sentence.
During the 1990s, the true globalization of the NBA began, and the league took an important step in the ongoing fight for gender equality in sports.
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were a coming out party for women’s basketball, and the league launched the WNBA in 1997. Jordan was gone again by the end of the decade, but by then, the NBA drafts featured international players such as Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. , another Dream Team legacy.
Once Jordan, Johnson and their teammates showed the best of basketball to the rest of the world, everyone seemed to want to be in the NBA.
“It was just amazing…it just kept happening,” Lyons said. “Guys started coming from all over. The stars were just aligning.
The cloud of doom that hung over the league in the early 1990s was now long gone by the end of the decade. Johnson was changing the world’s view on AIDS and Jordan was completing the transformation of the NBA on the court.