The 1991–92 season was the start of a new era for the Los Angeles Lakers, as they had to cope with the sudden retirement of their longtime superstar, Magic Johnson, due to an HIV infection. Without Johnson for the first time since 1979, the Lakers struggled to make the playoffs, as they finished with their worst record since the 1975–76 season. An eighth-seed, the Lakers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs in four games by the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the 1991-92 NBA season, Johnson missed the first three games with an unspecified "stomach ailment". On November 7, 1991, Johnson made the shocking announcement that he was infected with HIV and would immediately retire. Johnson discovered his condition when he tried to obtain life insurance and had failed the compulsory HIV test conducted by Lakers team doctor. Johnson gave a grave but defiant statement, stating he was happy that both his wife Cookie and her unborn child were HIV negative and that he was going to dedicate his life to spread the word about HIV prevention and promote safer sex. The NBA world was in shock, and even U. S. president George H. W. Bush mourned: "For me, Magic is a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports." Johnson immediately was listed as an injured reserve on the roster, but due to his valid contract, he continued to be paid by the Lakers franchise.
Nonetheless, Johnson was still voted into the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, and the press speculated whether he was going to make a comeback. Moreover, many colleagues were wary: as HIV can be transmitted by blood contamination, they argued that Johnson would be a deadly risk if he would get a bleeding wound and touch them. One of the most vocal opponents was Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone. Johnson won the skeptics over and made a triumphant return, leading the West to a 153-113 win and being crowned All-Star MVP. The game was also a curiosity, ending prematurely when he drained a last-minute three-pointer and his colleagues refused to play further, instead running collectively on court, hugging him and exchanging high-fives. However, it remained Johnson's last NBA game until his brief return at the end of the 1995–96 season.
Despite being HIV positive, Johnson was chosen for the US team for the 1992 Summer Olympics. The squad was quickly dubbed the Dream Team because of its abundance of NBA stars such as Jordan, Karl Malone and Bird, but Johnson was the main attraction. At the Olympic Opening Ceremony, German tennis player Steffi Graf ordered colleague Barbara Rittner to photograph her with Johnson, and in the match against Spain, Spanish captain Juan Antonio San Epifanio and his squad demonstratively hugged him, showing that his HIV infection did not matter to them. During the tournament, Johnson struggled with knee problems and played for only a fraction of the games. The point guard position was mostly run by Utah Jazz all-time assist leader John Stockton, but Johnson's presence alone was enough to provoke standing ovations from the crowd. He used the spotlight to attempt to inspire HIV positive people in several interviews.