Commentary

Painful moment, remarkable journey

20 years after his HIV announcement, Magic Johnson's impact is still strong

Updated: November 7, 2011, 2:57 PM ET
By Steve Springer | Special to ESPNLA.com

It's been 20 years.

Twenty years since Magic Johnson shocked the basketball world by announcing he was HIV positive, 20 years since he dragged a little-known condition, enveloped in fear and ignorance, into the bright light beamed by science and medicine, generating acceptance and hope, 20 years since he brought harsh reality into the wild and carefree world of Lakers Showtime, 20 years since he began the battle of his life, 20 years since he evolved from a basketball icon into a worldwide inspirational figure in the forefront of the ongoing effort to inform, treat and, hopefully, someday eradicate a disease once thought to be a death sentence.

Today, although the virus remains in his body, Johnson projects his trademark image of health and vibrancy, his ever-present smile as bright as it was the day he arrived in Los Angeles.

His years as a basketball player are far behind him, but, at age 52, he still moves at fast-break speed through his life as a successful businessman, television analyst and source of inspiration.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson: I knew I would beat this. But I want to remind people that the disease is still here. There is not a vaccine that is going to make it go away. Knowing that it is still out there is the reason I keep fighting. We want to find a cure for it.

Toward that end, Johnson will announce Monday at a Staples Center news conference that his foundation has raised $1 million to keep the fight against HIV and AIDS going.

He always had legions of fans, but in the last 20 years their ranks have been augmented by those in the AIDS medical community who have seen the effect he has had on their work.

Dr. David Ho, the physician who has treated Johnson over the past two decades: His celebrity helps to bring attention to the problem. Although HIV/AIDS is arguably the worst plague in human history, there is too much complacency. It doesn't draw attention from the general public, and yet, the epidemic rages on. Earvin can raise awareness and periodically remind people that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. In particular, in the U.S., the epidemic has shifted so much into African-Americans. Here Earvin can be very helpful in spreading awareness and educating the community about HIV prevention.

Susie Zeegen, co-founder of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation: He has such an ability to communicate what the realities of this disease are and that's a gift, albeit not one you would want to have. The way Earvin has portrayed having this disease to the public, you can see, especially among young people in the black community who have been affected, an attitude of, "Wow, if he can live his life this way with this diagnosis, so can I."

Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers physician who gave Johnson the news that he had tested positive for HIV:His diagnosis came along at a time when misconceptions about the disease were rampant.

Earvin didn't just hide when he learned what he had. He kicked open the door of public awareness and educated people. He did it with openness, honesty and forthrightness.

He said, this is what it is, this is the situation, and that allowed those of us who take care of people to get them to talk about HIV.

Earvin's disclosure also got a lot more people to agree to be tested. Before then, the attitude was, why be tested if there is no treatment? Now, people who are diagnosed with HIV say, "I want whatever Magic had, whatever spirits, potions, medication he took."

Even for Johnson, it wasn't easy to get to this point, as those around him can attest. The memories of those closely involved in his perilous journey from victim to survivor remain vivid.

THE DIAGNOSIS

Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent: I got a call from the Lakers saying Earvin hadn't passed a routine physical for a life insurance policy.

The results had been sent on to Mickey [Mellman]. He and I called Earvin in Utah [where the Lakers were scheduled to play the Jazz in a preseason game that night, Oct. 25, 1991] and told him he had to come home.

Before I picked him up, I went to the Lakers' offices and sat down with Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, trying to figure out what the heck was going on. We were all very uptight. We were sort of hoping it was cancer, obviously the treatable kind. Or was it some sort of blood disease? His heart? AIDS?

Earvin was quiet in the car when we drove from the airport to Mickey's office. Earvin knew it had to be something serious or they wouldn't have called him home.

When Mickey came out to get us in the waiting room, Earvin stood up, but I stayed in my seat. "You might as well come in," he told me. "You are going to have to hear it anyway."

We sat down in Mickey's office, he swiveled around in his chair, pulled out a FedEx envelope and said, "Earvin, I have your test results. You tested positive for HIV."

Johnson:I remember thinking, "Is this for real? No, it ain't happening. This is like a fog, a dream and I'm going to wake up."

Mellman told Johnson that he needed to be retested because there was chance, remote as it might be, that the results were inaccurate.

Also, Cookie, Johnson's bride of six weeks, his college sweetheart who had recently learned she was pregnant, had to be tested.

Anxious about telling Cookie the horrifying news, Johnson told Rosen he wanted to go out to dinner first.

Rosen: Sitting at this restaurant in Santa Monica, he was saying, "Am I going to live?" The world had just crashed in on him. He was scared.

He was very worried about Cookie and their unborn child and whether they had it.

Those were his No. 1 concerns. He wasn't really considering his career.

Johnson: I told Lon, "I've been blessed in my life. Even if I don't have much time left, I've had an amazing life."

Then, this woman came up to us and said, "Oh Magic Johnson, I'm a big fan of yours. We are having an AIDS fundraiser. Could you send us something?"

When she left, I told Lon, "Now, I'm one of them."

Finally, Johnson went home to tell Cookie.

Johnson: That was harder than playing against Larry [Bird]. Harder than playing against Michael [Jordan].

After revealing the shocking diagnosis, Johnson told his wife he would understand if she wanted to leave him. She responded by slapping him in the face for making such an unthinkable suggestion.

Johnson: We just cried and held each other. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was that she stayed. I think that's why I'm alive today.

Rosen: Cookie is very religious. She tried to learn a lot about the disease and said Earvin was going to be OK. She assured me she was going to take good care of him and she did. There was never a moment she wasn't supportive. She was part of the entire process, meeting with doctors.

Mellman referred Johnson to Ho. For nine days, Johnson waited for the results of the new tests while the Lakers covered up his absence by saying he had flu symptoms.

Rosen: Until then, he worked out every night at a gym we went to. In the back of his mind, he was hoping and thinking and praying it was the wrong diagnosis because he felt fine.

There has never been a moment to this day when he felt sick.

One time, a doctor came up to me while Earvin was working out and said, "He doesn't look to me like he's got flu-like symptoms. What's going on?"

We just sloughed it off.

Former teammate Michael Cooper:When he couldn't practice, we knew something was fishy. If it had not been too serious, he would have come out.

Finally, the call from Ho came, and it was bittersweet.

"We are confirming the diagnosis," Ho told Johnson. "Cookie is clean. Doesn't mean the baby is clean.

"You will not be able to play basketball. There is not a long life expectancy. You've got to take care of yourself. You can't exert yourself."

Ho: Back then, there were hardly any effective therapies available to treat HIV infection. Today, there are over 25 drugs from which to form a combination therapy. The difference is dramatic, like night and day.

Lakers trainer Gary Vitti: I wasn't sure about retirement, but I knew in my heart he would have to go public. It was the only way he could inform all the women he had relations with.

Magic JohnsonAP Photo/Nick UtLakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, and Magic Johnson's wife, Cookie, listen as he makes his announcement.

THE PRESS CONFERENCE

It was originally scheduled for November 8th with November 7th reserved for phone calls to alert those close to Johnson to the news that would soon envelop the basketball world.

But at 8:30 on the morning of November 7th, Rosen got a call from KFWB reporter Randy Kerdoon. He had heard, he told Rosen, that Johnson was retiring because he had HIV.

Rosen told Kerdoon he'd get back to him. Rosen's finger glided instantly from the disconnect button to the speed dial number for Johnson.

"We've got to go today," Rosen told Johnson. "The story is about to come out."

The Forum was booked for the press conference, the calls began and, by 12:30, the story was indeed out. John Nadel of the Associated Press had enough details to put it on the wire worldwide.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss: I learned about it one or two days before. Earvin himself told me on the telephone. I was so stunned that I didn't really look into what it meant medically until days afterward. I, like him, didn't recognize the difference between HIV and AIDS.

It was such an emotional period and my mind was swirling.

Rosen: Earvin called his family and asked me to call Bird, Jordan, Pat Riley, Isiah Thomas and Arsenio Hall.

Riles didn't want to coach his Knicks. He just wanted to get on a plane and come to L.A. "I can't coach right now," he said. "I'm going to leave."

"Pat," I told him, "if you don't coach, Earvin's going to think he's dying. You've got to keep going."

Cooper: It was very shocking to me. This was my best friend. I was playing in Italy when he called to tell me. I was glad he included me in his close circle.

He said, "Coop, I'm going to beat this."

I thought, "Boy, he may not be here too long." I was thinking he had maybe two weeks to live. I started crying. The first time I saw him after the announcement, he gave me a big hug. I never had second thoughts. I kissed him on the cheek. I figured, if I got it from him, we would go down together. My only question was, "What can I do to help you through it?"

He called the whole team into a room before the press conference and told everybody. When you feel love like we had for him, that helps you get through situations like that. Also, Earv has a strong religious background and I feel that's what held him together.

The name Magic fits him.

Ninety minutes later, Johnson walked up to the podium at the Forum and uttered the words that reverberated around the world and have been replayed over and over for two decades since.

"Good afternoon," he said in a calm, but serious manner. "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today ... I plan on going on living for a long time ... I'm going to be a happy man.

"Sometimes we think only gay people can get it or it's not going to happen to me. Here I am, saying it can happen to everybody. Even me, Magic Johnson."

Buss: In some ways, it seems like forever since it happened, but in some ways, it seems like just yesterday because everything from that day is burned in my memory.

I remember thinking how brave he was walking up there.

Although I knew what he was going to say, when he started to talk, I started sobbing. My head was swimming and I felt faint. Kareem reached over, I guess feeling I needed some support. He tried to console me. He was very strong and very helpful at that moment.

Vitti: My feeling at the press conference was that it was the saddest day of my life. I have never lost a parent, sibling or child, so I don't know what that's like, but the life was sucked out of me that day.

Even hardened, cynical sportswriters shed tears thinking they were going to have to watch this charismatic, dynamic superstar in his prime die in public.

BEAT IT?

Was Johnson living in denial, saying he was going to go on with his life, beating HIV as if the disease was just another on-court opponent to be vanquished.

Most people around him, his doctor included, thought so.

Ho: At the time of Earvin's diagnosis, therapies were inadequate and patients with AIDS died fairly quickly. Without good treatment, HIV infection progresses to AIDS and death in 99 percent of the infected individuals. It was natural for Earvin to expect the same fate.

However, new drugs began to emerge in the next few years following his diagnosis, and Earvin was fortunate to get on some of those immediately. They kept him going until the dramatic improvements that occurred by 1995.

Earvin did well because of the therapies administered to him, but he also took good care of himself, which helps.

Buss: I didn't really think he could beat it. I thought he would be a much diminished physical specimen. But I did know that he was really mindful of his body and his health. On the many, many times we used to go out in the evenings, 97 percent of the time he would drink orange juice. Very seldom have a drink. I think I only saw him have alcohol once or twice in all those years.

Vitti: I knew he was in good health, but I thought, over time, he would succumb to the disease.

But Earvin told me, "When God gave me HIV, he gave it to the right person ... I'm going to do something good with this."

He made me strong because I was struggling with it.

Rosen: The first couple of days after the diagnosis, he was in a state of shock and it wasn't something that was discussed. He was obviously scared and thought he would die, but very quickly, he knew he was going to beat this thing. Beating it means you continue living your life.

He never got lax about his medicine, even though it was a very difficult drug to take. He would get stomach problems. He never talked about it. He would just take it and live his life.

He worked out like crazy, even though they didn't think it was the right thing to do. He changed his diet, rested and tried to figure out what he was going to do for the rest of his life.

After pumping himself up for the news conference, Johnson was soon deflated by the reality of his condition.

Rosen: After the announcement, he was down for a couple of months. It was terrible. Number one, he lost his career. He still thought he could possibly die. And, he didn't know until E.J. [his son] was born if E.J. was going to have the disease or not, so that was a horrible burden to carry for nine months. (E.J., it turned out, did not have the virus.)

Earvin would pray every day.

The whispers about how he got the disease bothered him. People weren't giving him the high-fives and the hugs.

I got calls from three restaurants, high-end restaurants, one in New York, asking me to make sure he didn't come into their place. It was terrible. They didn't want him. I was mad. I told them it was wrong and discriminatory, but what are you going to do?

I didn't discuss it with him. I kept it to myself. This was 1991. Back then, HIV was an unknown. You just didn't know how people were going to react.

Remember, back then, the only thing people knew was what had happened to Rock Hudson [actor who died of AIDS]. They didn't go near those people.

Earvin didn't have AIDS, but it was an educational process.

It was really hard for him at the first game he came to as a spectator. It was against the Atlanta Hawks. He was devastated. The fans gave him huge, huge, huge applause, but he was hurting terribly.

Johnson knew that he wasn't an innocent victim of the disease, that somewhere in a series of sexual partners he had encountered in more than a decade as the ultimate Showtime superstar he had picked the wrong one. But that didn't cause him to second-guess himself.

Rosen: He always looked forward. He knew he lived a wild lifestyle. He doesn't look back because he can't change the past. He didn't beat himself up that way.

Nor does Buss, sometimes his running mate on those wild L.A. nights.

Buss:Not really. I can't control professional athletes, not only because they are adored by the public, but also because they go to so many different cities. I think I just accepted that as part of the norm. I didn't look at that situation as being the culprit at all.

Johnson: I have regrets. I regret what I put my family and friends through, that entire experience. And I regret retiring the first time, but, right after I was diagnosed, doctors told me I could not play. Ultimately, I came back.

ALL-STAR GAME

The first time the old twinkle came back into Johnson's eyes was when he realized he was going to be able to play in the NBA All-Star Game, to be held in Orlando just three months after his HIV announcement.

Rosen: The All-Star Game was such an important thing for him. When the All-Star ballots started coming in, we noticed he was in the lead. At first, league officials didn't think it would be fair if he started. David [Stern, NBA commissioner], being David, said, "If this guy gets the most votes, I want him there."

[+] EnlargeMagic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/ NBAE/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson was MVP of the 1992 All-Star Game, three months after he made his HIV annoucement.

Earvin trained like it was the seventh game of the Finals, but he trained with lawyers and doctors at a local sports club. He was working out with regular people. But that's what an incredible athlete he was. He was still able to get into shape.

Earvin would also come to Lakers games at the Forum and work out by himself before the teams came out. One day in January, he was out there shooting, and Rony Seikaly, who was with the Miami Heat at the time but injured, was working out at the other end. It was like 5 in the afternoon. All of a sudden, he came down and started to shoot with Earvin. The next thing you know, they were playing one-on-one, but really playing one-on-one. They were banging. It was a time when nobody would go near Earvin and this guy didn't care. It was a real turning point for Earvin.

Johnson not only played in the All-Star Game, but was the star among superstars, scoring 25 points, handing out nine assists, hitting a trio of 3-pointers near the end of the game, including the last shot, and winning the game's MVP award.

Cooper: He was back in his element. I was happy for him.

Buss: I felt my heart beat with every bounce of the ball. I was so right there with him, feeling this exoneration. That was a fabulous feeling for him. And for me, too. I gloried in it, felt like I was doing it myself.

Rosen: Afterward, he was very excited. It propelled him to work out hard for the Olympics.

It really took that All-Star Game for him to show himself that he could still play and be happy and healthy. After that, he was back to being Earvin again.

THE FIRST COMEBACK

Johnson went on to play on the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics, then attempted an NBA comeback for the 1992-93 season.

But it was still The Dark Ages as far as perceptions about the disease, an erroneous but persistent belief lingering that the virus could be spread by coming into contact with the blood of an HIV positive person in the open air.

Karl Malone, then with the Utah Jazz, said he wasn't comfortable being on the same court with Johnson.

Rosen: Earvin was hurt by that, but he understands and Karl apologized for that. There were other NBA players. It wasn't just Karl Malone. Karl just went public. We know of a number of other players who stayed away from Earvin.

The wife of one NBA player said, "Magic can score anytime he wants. All he has to do is slash his wrist and then drive down the court."

Then came the pivotal moment in a preseason game when Johnson suffered a cut on his arm.

Vitti: I knew HIV could not be transmitted that way and I tried my best to educate people.

The famous cut on the arm was not even a cut. It was a scratch that was not bleeding. I had gloves in my pocket, but I saw everyone staring at me. I had been telling our players that you could not get HIV that way from Earvin. I knew if I put those gloves on, I would be sending a mixed message to the world. I wasn't willing to do that.

Instead, Vitti patched up the scratch without touching the affected area, but the damage was done. Johnson, unwilling to be a distraction, retired again. He returned for the last half of the 1995-96 season, but he had been gone from the game too long and, at 36, the old magic was missing.

So he retired for the final time, and continued building a business empire and devoting himself to his HIV/AIDS charity work.

Elizabeth Glaser, wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion while giving birth to her daughter, Ariel, in 1981. Her son, Jake, also got the virus.

After Ariel died at age 7, Glaser began her foundation with the help of friends, focusing on pediatric HIV/AIDS.

When Johnson made his announcement, Glaser contacted him and a bond was formed.

Zeegen: What Elizabeth taught Earvin more than anything was to not be afraid of the disease, but rather to embrace it. This is the reality. They got dealt really bad hands, but look what they did with it. Look at what Earvin has done with it. He has painted a picture of hope.

Rosen: Elizabeth knew she was dying, but in Earvin, she saw someone who could bring enough attention to the disease to spur research that might help keep her son alive. And he is alive and well today.

Glaser died in 1994, but today, pediatric HIV/AIDS has nearly been eradicated in this country, according to numbers provided by the foundation.

Jerry Buss/MagicFocus on Sport/Getty ImagesMagic Johnson gave Jerry Buss some of his greatest moments as Lakers owner, including this one in 1980.

20 YEARS AFTER THE DIAGNOSIS

Buss: Did I envision him being so healthy 20 years later? No. If someone had told me that day, it certainly would have been a lot easier on me. I remember the recommendation had been to stay out of crowds, don't stress yourself with travel, etc. But then, I would read in the paper that he was in Sweden somewhere playing basketball, or giving a lecture in some state back east. He was just an amazing guy right from the very beginning. As I saw that stuff unfold, I began to realize that he was determined to beat it and I began to believe that he would beat it.

Ho: HIV is still in his body, but it is under good control with the medications. He is not cured. He has to continue to take his medicines. That way, the virus replication remains under control and cannot change and become more aggressive. This is why the cocktail therapies that began in 1995, 1996 have saved so many lives.

Cooper: I think, having gotten through it, he's a better man for it. It gives you some perspective when you have the thing you love most taken away from you.

Many people's lives have changed because of him. He's done more than he ever accomplished in basketball.

But the work still goes on. According to the Centers For Disease Control, more than 1 million people in this country are HIV positive and one in five of those are unaware they have the virus.

The hardest hit segment of the U.S. population is the African-American community. It is approximately 12 percent of the total population but accounts for 46 percent of HIV cases.

Johnson: In some communities in the U.S., the spread of HIV is happening in greater numbers than in some countries in Africa. We keep trying to deliver the message about safe sex.

Worldwide, 33.4 million people have HIV or AIDS.

Johnson: I've been the blessing for HIV and I've really been the curse for it, the blessing because of the awareness level.

The curse comes in because, [when people] see me doing well, they are not [always] protecting themselves and doing what they're supposed to do. We need to get back to being scared again.

Steve Springer is a freelance journalist and the author of 11 books. He was an award-winning sports writer with the Los Angeles Times for 25 years, during which time he covered Magic Johnson's career with the Lakers.

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