People have looked up to Magic Johnson for most of his life, and not just because he’s 6’9.” Though an NBA superstar — he won three MVP awards and five championships with the LA Lakers — it’s the last two decades that have made Johnson a role model.
In 1991, when Johnson retired from the NBA to focus on his health, HIV and AIDS had reached epidemic proportions. At the time, many dismissed AIDS as a disease of drug addicts and homosexuals. But here was a straight, top-tier athlete announcing to the world that he had tested positive for HIV and would step down immediately from professional basketball.
Johnson’s resignation press conference on Nov. 7, 1991 was a stunner. It hammered home for many the fact that HIV could affect anyone, anywhere.
After speaking at a We Day Event in Waterloo last month, where he made the surprise announcement that he plans to start his own We Day in L.A., Johnson spoke to The Huffington Post Canada about living with HIV, homophobia in hip-hop and how his good health has been both “a blessing and a curse” in the fight against AIDS.
It’s been 20 years since you announced you had HIV and retired from the NBA. What do you think your legacy is going to be off the court?
I think it's going to be giving back. It's going to be the scholarships – we've sent tens of thousands of young people to college through the Magic Johnson Foundation. We have 18 technology centres where people can go and have access to a computer and 75 percent of their grades have gone up because the digital divide is so big in urban America. Then the health fairs that we have because a lot of them haven't had their shots as young people. So we have minivans going around in our community giving them their physicals for free and their shots for free.
And then when you think about HIV and AIDS, man, it's been over $10 million to different organizations and I will continue to raise the awareness level and make sure that people who are dealing with HIV and AIDS have a roof over their heads. We also want to continue to stop the discrimination against people who are living with HIV and AIDS whether it's in the workplace or out in public.
How do you think you have personally been able to affect how people with HIV and AIDS are treated by others?
First of all, Elizabeth Glaser helped me. She was dying of AIDS at that time and she said to me as she was dying that she wanted me to become the face of the disease and to go out and really effect change in terms of the discrimination. So that's what I decided to do.
I started in the [George H.W. Bush] White House but they were not doing enough. So I quit and decided to do my own thing and I’ve been able make headway block by block, community by community. I've been to 300 high schools and colleges speaking about HIV and AIDS, 300 churches to rally their community about what needs to be done.
Last but not least, I learned a lot from the white gay community because they had gotten their community, rallied them, educated them and did a wonderful job about driving the numbers down. That is the best approach that I've seen; it's been the most effective. So what we try to do in our community is bring those results to us. So I'm working hard to continue to educate minorities about HIV and AIDS and we've got to band together. We're too fragmented right now, but if we can do that, we're going to do well.
As a hip-hop fan, you realize that homophobia is still an issue everywhere, but especially in the black community. When people are scared to talk about it, that's how the disease spreads. So what have you been doing to get that risk reduced?
What we're trying to do is reach out to the hip-hop community because they have power — power with their voice, power with that mic in their hand and power with the lyrics that they sing. I have a lot of friends in that industry and so what we're trying to do is rally them to get behind the cause, deliver the message to these young people that HIV and AIDS is big and it's not going anywhere. They can make a difference right away by speaking out, because they have a big fan base.
So we're finding out that a lot of them want to be involved; they're just looking for a group like ours to latch onto and be a part of it. We haven't really had any push-back from the hip-hop community.
Is there anybody you can name?
We're going to name everybody in a little while because it's more than one person. We've got about five or six people that we're talking to. We're going to come out next year with everybody and we'll have a nice big press conference and what we're going to do, what our plan is, because it's so important that we rally — not just them, either. I need the hip-hop community but I also need the basketball players and football players. We need a little bit of everybody, so that's what we're working on now.
It's the 20th anniversary of you retiring from the NBA. Did the last two decades roll out the way you thought or were you scared you wouldn't even be here?
I think there's always fear when you first announce that you might not be here 20 years later. But once I got on the meds and once I started working out every day, once I started living and being comfortable with my status [it got better.]
When I announced, there was one drug and now we have over 30. When I announced, you had to whisper. There were no interviews like this about HIV and AIDS. When I announced, everybody with HIV and AIDS was put over there in the corner, and nobody wanted to talk to them or listen to them. Now 20 years later we can talk freely, a lot of good has happened. Are we where we want to be? No. But I'm still here. That's number one, which is great.
The medicine has got much better, number two. We have great information that we didn't have before. There are great articles about it. There's a face. There's more awareness than ever before. And so here I am, this year, 20 years of HIV, 20 years of being married, 20 years of Magic Johnson Foundation. What a year for me. So I'm going to continue what I do each and every day. We just raised a million dollars in three months. So a lot of great HIV and AIDS organizations around the country will benefit because we'll be giving them grants as we normally have, so that they can continue [to keep] their doors open and can buy meds to give to people who can't afford it.
How else are you reaching out to the inner-city community?
We have our testing vans, because people in the 'hood can't go to get tested somewhere — they don't have a vehicle and don't have money to do that — so we have vehicles that can go out right into the neighbourhood. They didn't have to do nothing but walk maybe a block, two blocks to get their test. That's how we're gonna’ change things. You gotta’ know urban America first to make changes. You gotta’ make it simple for them. You gotta’ make it confidential so that nobody's gonna’ know their business.
And then last but not least — I'm here. It's made a difference that I'm still living.
It's amazing how you can be a beacon of hope by just being healthy.
Well, I tell people I've been a blessing and a curse. I've been a blessing because I've been here 20 years, but I've been a curse because I am here [and] they kind of relaxed. So we've got to get the urgency back to going out to get tested.
We've still got a lot of people walking around with HIV that don't know it, but we're getting more people to get tested. It's gonna take all of us, but I'm up for the challenge. I'm up for the fight.