Earvin "Magic" Johnson believed life's toughest challenges were behind him. He had earned good grades in high school and overcome financial barriers to become the first in his working-class family to go to college. With five championships and two MVP awards under his belt, he was one of the highest-paid players in the NBA. But the hardest was yet to come -- telling his wife he had HIV.
On the 20th anniversary of Johnson's courageous public announcement that he was infected with the fearsome virus, we got an opportunity to sit down and talk to him about that pivotal moment in his life, and his subsequent fight against HIV and AIDS.
It was late October 1991, and the Lakers' team physician ordered Johnson back to L.A. immediately from a pre-season game in Utah to drop the bomb. A routine test had come back positive for HIV.
Johnson remembers his thoughts as he sat in that doctor's office. "I thought I made all the right moves, all the right decisions. My life was going great. How could it happen to me?"
It took half an hour for Johnson to pull himself together before he could go home and face his wife, Cookie.
How would she react?
On the long drive his head was spinning. What could he say to soften the blow? Would she leave him? What if he had infected her, too? What about their unborn child?
Johnson walked into their den where Cookie was watching TV. He sat down and told her straight out. Prepared for the worst, he recalled telling her he would understand if she left him. Her answer hit him like a Mike Tyson right cross: "We're going to beat this together."
A few days later, tests showed Cookie and the child inside her were free of the virus. "Then I knew I could live for a long time," he told us, his chin practically resting on his knees as he settled his six-foot-nine frame in a too-small chair.
Together, they found the strength to make a difficult decision. Johnson could easily have told the world he had a less stigmatized disease like cancer, or simply wanted to spend more time with his family, but he had learned the threat of HIV/AIDS was growing for minorities. Johnson wanted to help his community, so he chose to speak out.
Cookie was afraid of public backlash. Johnson remembers, "I said to her it didn't matter, because we're going to save a lot of people."
It's difficult for our generation to comprehend how much courage it must have taken. People then, particularly in minority communities, were afraid to even talk about HIV/AIDS openly. "You had to whisper, or take someone way over in the corner to talk about it," Johnson told us.
Twice Johnson tried to come out of retirement. Other players, people he had once counted friends, lashed out. They refused to play him for fear of being infected.
Johnson recalled the racism he had fought against at his mostly-white high school in the 1970s. At the principal's request, Johnson had been a school diplomat, actively talking to both white and black students to bridge the divide. He learned that prejudice and misunderstanding could only be solved by patience and conversation, and by being the better person. "Don't be afraid to challenge different people. Help them to come together."
For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, Magic Johnson became the face of HIV/AIDS. A straight black man, he smashed the stereotype that HIV/AIDS only affected drug addicts and gay white men. Anyone having unprotected sex with multiple partners, as Johnson admitted he had, was at risk. He addressed United Nations conferences, made countless public appearances, and to this day still visits with and talks to people living with the disease.
The Magic Johnson Foundation has provided free HIV/AIDS testing to more than 38,000 people, and supports health clinics in major urban centers.
There were those who thought Johnson had been handed a death sentence in 1991. Yet 20 years later, there he was in front of us. He seemed full of boundless energy, illustrating his words with broad, sweeping gestures as he described everything he has done with his life, and everything he still plans to do. "I wanted to show that people living with HIV or any other disease could still get out there and live a productive life."
Johnson founded a business empire by taking theatres and coffee shops and adapting them to meet the needs and culture of lower-income urban communities. Those businesses employ more than 40,000 minority workers. He is one of the largest Starbucks franchise owners and owns the number one urban real estate business in the U.S.
Twenty years ago, Johnson says he couldn't have imagined his life today with a loving wife, two kids (the youngest adopted), a successful business, and great memories from the courts. His greatest pride is the work of his foundation.
Johnson's advice for others: "You win by making other people better. You can't be blessed until you bless somebody else. You can't be someone great until you do something great for someone else."
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