For five-time NBA champion Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s are apparent.
“The same issues we had then, we have now, where bad information, myth about ‘it couldn’t happen to us in the black community,’ not being educated enough about HIV and AIDS,” Johnson told ESPN via phone Wednesday morning. “The same thing [is happening] with the coronavirus.”
Johnson, who said a childhood friend is in the hospital because of the coronavirus, is partnering with the NBA to try to raise awareness among black Americans.
While the NBA season has been on indefinite pause since March 11, the league has launched “NBA Together,” an outreach program that includes Instagram Live interviews with current and former players, public service announcements encouraging fans to follow public health guidelines, and educational videos teaching young fans basketball skills.
NBA Together has raised more than $76 million for coronavirus-related relief efforts.
“The same issues we had then, we have now where bad information, myth about ‘it couldn’t happen to us in the black community,’ not being educated enough about HIV and AIDS. The same thing [is happening] with the coronavirus.”
As more information emerged about the coronavirus, the NBA zeroed in on data from public health officials showing that people of color — and particularly African Americans — are disproportionately affected by the virus. On Wednesday, the league unveiled a program within the NBA Together initiative that aims to further educate the public — and especially minorities — about the coronavirus. The new program includes partnering with the NAACP, National Urban League and other nonprofit organizations.
Data has shown that black people are dying from the coronavirus at a higher rate than the general public. One study published by The Associated Press found that 42% of the people who have died of coronavirus in the United States were black. African Americans make up 21% of the total population surveyed.
“We really have to get out in front of this,” Johnson said. “That is why I am so happy the NBA is saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something about it because who is out there on the court? Majority African American players. Who enjoys this sport? African Americans.’ We love our basketball. This is very important right now.”
Johnson is slated to film public service announcements and participate in several virtual discussions aimed at reaching black NBA fans in particular. Johnson, along with other players and coaches, will hold an online town hall series with health professionals and discuss the ways in which black and brown people are being hit harder, in many cases, by the coronavirus than their white peers.
“We do have a way to break through,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibly and player programs. “That is why having Magic so involved will really help us reach people with this message.”
The NBA is also working to help raise awareness about the coronavirus in United States prisons. On April 28, Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill is scheduled to participate in a 30-minute Instagram Live with Xavier McElrath-Bey, who spent 13 years in prison. Additionally, the NBA is working with historically black colleges and universities to help organize a virtual graduation in place of canceled ceremonies.
“The NBA has been at the forefront when you think about diversity and inclusion,” Johnson said. “Look at the Donald Sterling situation. The NBA has cachet in our community. When something happens in the black community, the NBA has always been there. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] is the most dynamic leader we have in sports. He gets it. It’s a no-brainer. I knew he was going to do something.”