Why did Magic Johnson Want to Hit Howard Stern?

Magic Johnson is known around the world for his basketball prowess, his business acumen, his HIV activism, and most of all his charismatic persona — but his megawatt smile masked some painful emotions during a disastrous 1998 interview with Howard Stern.

“So many times, I wanted to say something and hit [Stern] at the same time — on air,” Johnson recalled in a Variety cover story published Tuesday, ahead of the premiere of the Apple TV+ docuseries They Call Me Magic. He added, “I was mad when they booked him. But there’s nothing you can do. When people look for ratings, this is what happens.”

The infamous interview took place on Johnson’s short-lived talk show The Magic Hour, which was floundering in the ratings and had been blasted by Stern on his popular radio program. Magic Hour producers invited the shock jock on the show to hash things out, and Johnson said, “Let’s get right to it,” when Stern arrived. “Why have you been talking about me so much, man?”

In the conversation that ensued, the famously outspoken Stern made several racist comments, pressed Johnson for details about his sex life, made crude remarks to bandleader Sheila E., and told Johnson, “At least you had fun getting AIDS.” When Johnson corrected him and said he had HIV, not AIDS — and assured him that “nobody has fun” contracting the disease — Stern replied, “Believe me, brother, you did. It sounds like fun to me.”

The two men haven’t spoken since, according to Johnson. Representatives for Johnson and Stern didn’t immediately respond to EW’s requests for comment.

During the cringe-inducing Magic Hour interview, Stern said to Johnson, “The thing you need to work on, in my estimation, is that you’ve gotta stop trying to talk like the white man… Everybody’s anti-Ebonics. I say let it fly! What you need to do, my brotha, is to really get down with it. You talk Ebonics all you want.” He added, “Listen, you’re a Black man. I grew up in a Black neighborhood. I’m Blacker than you are, trust me. I’m the Blackest Black man you’ll ever meet.” Stern also referenced his upbringing in Roosevelt, Long Island, “a Black ghetto,” before launching into his impression of a Black person.

Stern went on to discuss Johnson’s HIV-positive status, which the five-time NBA champ and Lakers legend had disclosed during a watershed 1991 press conference announcing his retirement. (Johnson returned to the league twice, playing his final game in 1996.)

“You had the life I wanted,” Stern said, asking Johnson about his sexual history. “These were white chicks? Black chicks? What do we got? What did you prefer? You would have sex with everybody? At least you had fun getting AIDS.”

Reflecting on the uncomfortable interview 24 years later, Johnson told Variety, “It is what it is. I learned a lot from that. I’ve never put myself — or HIV and AIDS, or my race — in that position again, ever again.”

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