On Nov. 7, 1991, Magic Johnson told the world he was HIV positive and that he was retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers, but Johnson did not mention the Olympics in that tear-filled press conference room.
Reports at the time assumed Johnson would be off the Dream Team, citing Lakers team physician Dr. Michael Mellman saying he shouldn’t participate.
USA Basketball said it had not heard from Johnson before the announcement or in the first few days afterward.
But a week later, Johnson urged Sports Illustrated readers not to close the book on his basketball career. The Barcelona Olympics eight months later meant that much to him:
“Don’t count me out for the ’92 Olympics in July,” Johnson wrote in the Nov. 18, 1991, magazine issue, whose contents were published by media Nov. 12. “If I’m healthy, I might very well be on the floor for the opening tap in Barcelona. I agreed to play in the Olympics because I wanted to be there for my country, something I’d never been able to do before. I wanted to play on the same team as Michael [Jordan] and Larry [Bird], something that would give me the kind of high that … man! I get goose bumps just thinking about what it would be like to be on the floor with those guys.
And I want to bring back the gold medal. I’ve accomplished everything in this game — from a team perspective and individually. I’ve won championships in high school, college and the pros. And I’ve won every major award there is. But I don’t have an Olympic gold medal. I want it. God willing, I’ll get it.”
On that same Tuesday, five days after Johnson’s HIV announcement, USA Basketball said it would “be happy to have him” remain on the roster if doctors cleared him.
“We’ve been given some indication today that he’s going to keep that option open,” then-USA Basketball president Dave Gavitt said, according to The Associated Press, saying that the information came to him “third-hand,” rather than from Johnson himself.
Johnson had been the first player named to the Dream Team as part of a 10-player announcement on NBC on Sept. 21. Two more players to complete the 12-man roster would be named later, at least one of which being a collegian.
After Johnson’s HIV announcement, media speculated that Johnson could be replaced on the Dream Team by longtime friend Isiah Thomas, the glaring omission from the initial 10-player list. Thomas’ coach on the Detroit Pistons, Chuck Daly, would be the Dream Team coach.
But USA Basketball said that any potential replacement would not be named until April 1992.
“All of this is very premature,” selection committee chairman C.M. Newton said, according to the AP. “We’ve not talked to Earvin or to his doctor or anybody. … As far as we’re concerned, he’s still part of the Olympic team.”
We know the rest of the story. Johnson made his return to the court at the All-Star Game on Feb. 9, 1992, taking MVP honors. He remained on the Olympic team, despite some opposition, notably from the Australians.
“It was therapy for me,” Johnson said in a 2012 NBA TV documentary. “I needed that in the worst way.”Follow @nzaccardi