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And since that day, Johnson has changed the perception of what it means to live with HIV. By not only surviving the past 20 years, but also by all appearances remaining healthy while becoming a prosperous businessman who has replicated his on-court success in the boardroom, Johnson has shown that HIV doesn't have to be a death sentence. Johnson is still the most visible, high-profile symbol of a fact unimaginable in 1991. HIV can be beat.
For a generation who did not live through momentous events like the Kennedy assassination or Nixon's resignation, Nov. 7, 1991, was a historic marker of its own. Classrooms across the country dedicated the next day to HIV-AIDS education, and NBA fans and nonfans alike wrestled issues that seem obvious in retrospect. Yes, unprotected heterosexual encounters could transmit the disease. (From the start, Johnson was very open about the cost of his carousing.) Why did he have to stop playing? Could you actually contract the virus through sweat? When does HIV infection transform into full-blown AIDS?
The day after his announcement, Johnson appeared on the late-night talk show of his friend, Arsenio Hall. There, he adamantly denied rumors that he was gay. The crowd cheered wildly, as if Johnson had just won another championship, or announced he'd been cured. Today, it's hard to imagine a denial of homosexuality would be greeted with such enthusiasm (though, as Frost points out, an audience booed a gay soldier asking a question of the candidates at the Sept. 22, 2011, Republican presidential debate).
Since 1991, some in the HIV community have periodically accused Johnson of dialing back his activism. Frost, however, admires Johnson's HIV-education efforts. "He's done a great deal of work around the issue. He's been living with this disease for 20 years, been outspoken and tried to reach communities at risk. He's been a real warrior." Still, he insists that we shouldn't overstate his impact. "I don't think Magic's announcement effected broad change," Frost says. "Huge challenges still remain, around stigma and discrimination. There are still political challenges, research challenges, and of course, all of this is happening against this economic background, so there are enormous financial challenges to addressing the epidemic. We have a lot of work to do."
In his fight against HIV, Johnson has had enormous advantages, most importantly access to the most cutting-edge health care. In the mid-1990s, noted AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho (TIME's 1996 Man of the Year) put Johnson on new antiretroviral medications, before they were available to the general public. He continues to take Trizivir and Kaletra, two HIV treatment drugs, and does not have AIDS. Regardless, 20 years later he's a symbol of hope. "People look at him now, they go, 'Oh, my God,'" says West. "'He's still with us, he's doing great. I wish I can face up to some of the challenges that I have like he does.'"
Green, Johnson's teammate and friend, visited him at his office just last week. They reflected on that day, which Green still remembers vividly. After that press conference, Green walked to the parking lot. "I got to my car, and I probably had my third long cry," Green says. He tried to drive home but had to pull over. "Everything I had known at that particular time, he was a part of," says Green. "As far as basketball, adjusting to the NBA, just as a friend. When I finally got home, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I was just reliving that locker-room conversation."
Green has long been an outspoken advocate of premarital celibacy, and remained a virgin until marrying in 2002. But Green says he never had an "I told you so" moment with Johnson. After the announcement, they talked about making the best of a dire situation, about Johnson preaching responsibility to kids. To Green, Johnson has followed through on those promises.
During their meeting last week, Johnson and Green shared their amazement. It's 20 years later, and Johnson is still here. "We just laughed and shook our heads, because there's really no other response," Green says. "Two 6-ft.-9-in. guys with a dumbfounded look, like, 'I know, man.'"
Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Keeping Score, his sports column for TIME.com, appears on Fridays. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME's Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.