“I’m gonna go on, I’m gonna beat it, and I’m gonna have fun. I’m gonna see you soon” Even in his most difficult time in life, Magic was planning on having fun. This was the last thing he said on November 7th, 1991, when he announced he is infected with HIV and is retiring from basketball.
This news shocked the world. Magic was more than basketball; he was a global superstar who transcended the sport and the first person of that stature that publicly spoke of his condition.
At the time, people didn’t know the difference between AIDS and HIV, it was considered to be a “gay disease” as most of the infected were homosexuals, and there was a lot of stigma attached to it. Then, suddenly, America’s favorite athlete had it.
His greatest rival and friend, Larry Bird, said up to that point there was never a moment in his life he didn’t feel like playing basketball. That night The Celtics were playing, and he didn’t want to be there. He compared hearing the news to the day his father died. His coach and mentor Pat Riley sad a few words before a game in MSG as the coach of the Knicks, and then both teams had a prayer for Magic before the game. It came out of nowhere and shook everyone to their core.
I learned quickly how differently I’d be looked at, now that I had HIV. … When you go get the love hug or hit the hands as they used to and everybody’s like, they don’t know if they can touch me.
Magic decided to become a spokesperson for the disease. Give people a face they know and will trust to speak up on the facts and risks involved. It’s often in life you found out who your real friends were, and Magic saw who came to support him. One of the first people to do something was Charles Barkley.
We love Chuck because he doesn’t have a filter, occasionally speaks before he thinks, but no one ever doubts it is coming from a good place. He may come off insensitive at times, but actions speak louder than words.
Barkley was playing for the 76ers at the time and he wore number 34. To honor Magic and show support for his friend, he decided to switch to Magic's number 32 for the rest of the season (via The Baltimore Sun).
“I’m changing numbers to salute a friend. It’s a private thing between the two of us. I’m just doing it for the year; then I’ll go back to 34. I like my number.”
No. 32 was retired in the rafters and will always be Billy Cunningham’s number. Magic called him to ask for permission, and Mr. Cunningham was very supportive of the idea. The Sixers made the jersey, and Chuck supported his friend through the entire season.
We take this for granted now, but even after the first shockwave, there were players scared of being on the Dream Team next to Magic as there was still a lack of knowledge on HIV and AIDS.
One can only wish to have a friend like Charles Barkley.