Former NBA commissioner, David Stern, died this week at the age of 77.
A lawyer and businessman by trade, Stern was acting commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014, and during that time he faced many milestones and crises. His greatest accomplishment was standing by Los Angeles Lakers icon Magic Johnson when he announced he was living with HIV in 1991.
At the time, HIV treatment was not as sophisticated as it is today. Much of the public continued to believe the virus was a death sentence, including Stern himself.
“Everyone [thought Johnson would die],” Stern told amfAR in 2016. “That was the nature of HIV/AIDS in this country at the time. I didn’t think about what next steps to take until I hung up.”
Johnson was a trailblazing player in the 1990s. As USA Today noted in an opinion piece about Stern and Johnson, the player was “one of the game’s most popular and marketable players who helped rescue the NBA in the 1980s.”
Instead of distancing himself from Johnson after he came out poz, Stern chose to stand by him. As a result, he gave Johnson a much higher platform to speak about HIV, which drastically helped reduce stigma and jumpstart a new conversation about treatment.
In fact, Stern hired lead HIV researcher Dr. David Rogers to help educate the NBA.
“I learned things that I never thought I would have to know, such as the possibility of HIV passing through fluids, open sores, to get confident that we were proceeding in an intelligent way,” Stern said to amfAR. “Somewhere along the line, we realized that this was an opportunity to educate the world and to calm down the fear that anyone with HIV should be treated like a leper.”
Stern added, “I remember I became more fascinated by Magic’s T-cell count than the score of any game that was being played.”
Johnson’s health improved immensely in the months following his coming out, and fans voted him to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, though some players continued to perpetuate HIV stigma and fought against it, assuming that they’d contract HIV themselves if the NBA allowed Johnson to play.
Under the leadership of Stern, doctors visited teams and started educating players as well as investors about HIV, particularly how it’s transmitted. That in itself helped to redirect concerns both internally and publicly.
“I work for what I believe is in the best interest of all the owners," Stern told ESPN in an interview. "There are times when a particular owner or team has a different view. When events are fast-moving, I have to do what is best for the league. For the most part, the owners took our lead."
Johnson would go on to play in that All-Star Game, as well as the U.S. Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He came back to the NBA in 1995 and played 32 games before retiring for good, reports USA Today.
David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 1, 2020
As a result of Stern’s support for Johnson during this incredible time in history, a wider dialogue about HIV efforts followed, one that reverberates even today.