30 Years Since LA Lakers Retired Magic Johnson's 32, His True Legacy Lies Off The Court

Magic's work with his foundation has educated thousands on the impact of HIV/AIDS
09:55, 17 Feb 2022

During this week, back in 1992, the LA Lakers chose to retire the number 32 jersey worn by the legendary Earvin 'Magic' Johnson. 30 years on, for all of his genius on the court, his legacy lies off it.

He was the number one draft pick back in 1979, became a five-time NBA champion, and is regarded by every NBA fan as one of the greatest to have ever played the game. Yet his HIV diagnosis, and the work his foundation has done since 1991 has taken Magic from a basketball great, to an all-time sporting legend. Today, on this special anniversary, we reflect upon Johnson, who lived up to his nickname on and off the court. 

Basketball wasn’t quite dead in 1979, but still it wasn’t the universally popular brand it is today. The introduction of the “three-pointer” that followed in the NBA league was significant, but on March 26th, 1979 in Salt Lake City, the NCAA final between Michigan State and Indiana State captured the imagination.

Most of a TV audience of 20 million had never seen Larry Bird or Magic Johnson play. Bird, a fine passer for Indiana state, whose shooting still needed work, and the charismatic Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who would go on to become one of the games finest ever point guards. 

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The game itself may not have been of deepest vintage; but Bird and Magic gave the sport a certain vibrancy. Drama and personality. Johnson’s Michigan State won the national title 75-64, but basketball mushroomed and Johnson was now a part of the public consciousness. He has rarely been out of it since.

Still the dramatic narrative has not relaxed itself. In February 2017, his former club, the LA Lakers {the side that he was the first overall draft for in 1979 following the NCAA final}, placed him in charge of basketball operations. He had returned to the Lakers shortly beforehand in an executive role, but left in 2019 unexpectedly after successive failures to reach the play-offs.

Although it didn't work out in the end, their intentions were good. They wanted him more involved, more to the forefront of operations because of his experience, his acumen and his charismatic presence. And because his presence brought hope. But Johnson has been bringing hope to a lot of people for a long time and it all started with his own pain.

In what would have most certainly been thought of as a death sentence at the time; in 1991 he announced he was HIV positive. Retirement was immediate; on the advice of doctors he was told continued playing could affect his immune system. Although comebacks – including appearing and winning gold at the 1992 Olympics and a stint in Scandinavia - followed.

Despite the ignorance surrounding the disease, Johnson found the best way to educate was to do it himself. At the same press conference at the Great Western Forum – the Lakers home – he said he would use his position to educate people about AIDS, HIV and the root causes. And thus, the Magic Johnson Foundation was founded.

What came out of the Foundation, was that education was crucial. That the growth of HIV and AIDS was directly related to education. On the organisation’s website it states: “We have found that by increasing knowledge and academic achievement in areas with disproportionately high levels of HIV/AIDS infection rates, we can positively influence this trajectory.”

Through testing for the disease, grants, financial support and social interaction, Johnson and his organisation have helped shape people’s behaviours, perceptions and awareness.

When, for the second time in his life, Johnson became an integral part of the LA Lakers, there was those who believed bringing the Lakers back to former glories would be his greatest achievement. However, his foundation work adds context and perspective. 

30 years since number 32 was retired, that will always be his greatest work. 

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