The Announcement debuts tonight on ESPN at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson changed the course of the story of HIV and AIDS in the United States on November 7, 1991, when he announced his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers due to a positive HIV test incurred during an insurance physical. Like one of the best 30 For 30 installments—the O.J. Simpson-centric “June 17, 1994”—“The Announcement” could have focused intensely on the day of that bombshell press conference and its aftermath, or taken a slightly wider lens and incorporated the diagnosis a few weeks earlier. Instead, “The Announcement” is a slightly padded biography of Magic Johnson’s NBA career. It still soars when parsing out the details of that afternoon at the Forum in Inglewood, but it tries to include too much about his legendary career in the '80s, and his return to the spotlight in the mid-90s and beyond.
Since Johnson is the centerpiece of the documentary, it makes a lot of sense that he would narrate his own story. But the narration is problematic, too jovial in tone and overly rehearsed. It’s valuable to get Johnson’s own perspective, but the material would be served better by a documentarian asking probing questions, instead of merely providing a platform for Magic to craft his own narrative about that period in his life.
The beginning of the film spends a bit too much time explaining just how important Magic Johnson was to the city of Los Angeles and American culture at large. In the wake of the Lakers’ success with Johnson as leader in the '80s, the Forum became the hottest ticket in the city, courtside celebrities everywhere, after-parties with Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Bunnies in the arena’s nightclub. Johnson says he didn’t drink or smoke while he was focused on basketball, but he makes it obliquely clear that he indulged in some other questionable activities. It’s nice to have a quick overview of how famous Johnson was at the time to show how tremendous a fall the HIV diagnosis caused. There are also some other nice little threads, like the extended courtship between Johnson and his eventual wife, Cookie. But Johnson is a worldwide icon, despite effectively leaving the game 20 years ago, and a half hour of preamble detailing the parties, championships, and cross-media friendships with Arsenio Hall and others don’t provide insight on the event in the doc’s title.
That all changes in the middle half hour, which brings Magic’s life screeching to a halt, taking great pains to explain almost every event over the few days at the beginning of the 1991 season that led to the HIV diagnosis. These talking heads, from Johnson’s agent, leading HIV researchers, Johnson’s family, his son from a previous relationship, and his close friends around the NBA, detail the pit-of-stomach reactions to the initial news. Even spreading through private circles, in 1991 the positive test results felt like a death sentence. There’s a lot of news footage spliced in, including reactions from every major outlet commenting on the revelation, but to Johnson’s credit, he immediately makes the transition from athlete to advocate. It’s a little disappointing that the documentary doesn’t give him the chance to explain in his own words just how he had the personal insight necessary to come to the realization against his wife’s initial wishes for privacy to go public with his diagnosis and immediately advocate for more responsible sex education, and shift the conversation of HIV from being just a “gay disease” to a larger health issue.
All the reactions from Johnson’s NBA contemporaries are striking, from Johnson’s teammates concerned about contracting HIV, to Larry Bird’s bluntly honest admission that for once he just didn’t want to even be on the court during his game. Karl Malone continues to provide a face for ignorance and stubbornness about the fear surrounding Johnson’s disease in the NBA, made all the more strange by Malone continuing to make excuses for his comments 20 years ago, and the fact that Malone played on the Dream Team with Magic and would know from team doctors that he was in no danger. The final months of 1991 and the beginning of 1992 are the most intriguing parts of “The Announcement,” digging in and providing depth to the context around the press conference.
The last significant event in the aftermath of Johnson’s announcement comes courtesy of former Lakers coach Pat Riley, who was coaching the New York Knicks at the time. He invites Magic for a workout in New York, and just has a blast leading Magic through shooting drills, hugging him after everything is done. Johnson has done nothing if not fully embody his nickname. The man is a magical personality, able to soften the rougher edges of the tough men around him—Riley in particular. It’s disarming to see Riley get so choked up talking about his friendship with Johnson, and the wistful inflections in his voice as he tears up, thinking about a conversation on a balcony in Los Angeles, to the phone call delivering news of the diagnosis, to his few words about that workout, show just how big an effect Johnson had on those around him.
Johnson poignantly observes that his case is both a blessing and curse to HIV awareness: His prominence has allowed the medical and activist communities to make significant advancements in HIV research, but living for 20 years with the disease has engendered a sense of complacency in young people, at least in Johnson’s mind. “The Announcement” contains some incredibly insightful and gripping segments surrounding the few weeks that changed Johnson’s life, but it veers too easily into public service announcement and career retrospective. The most important aspect of that event was how it affected the perception of a pernicious disease in the minds of the American people and helped shift the conversation on public fear over the outbreak. Any fan of basketball, or of Magic Johnson in particular, will find a lot of fascinating details in this film, but for other viewers, there might be too much focus on just one man, and not enough on the movement he represented after his basketball career ended.