'The Announcement': How Magic Johnson Deals With HIV/AIDS 20 Years Later

on March 12 2012 10:56 AM
Magic/Bird
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are portrayed in the new Broadway play "Magic/Bird." Reuters

Today, 52-year-old Earvin Magic Johnson still wears a big smile everywhere he goes. The former Los Angeles Lakers All-Star point guard, who won five NBA Championships and three MVP Awards in his 12 years in the league, is now an ESPN analyst, a broadcaster, an entrepreneur, and a philantropist. If you didn't already know that Johnson shook the world 20 years ago when he announced he had contracted the HIV virus, you would never believe -- just by looking at him -- that he still struggles with the disease today.

On Sunday night, ESPN aired an ESPN Films documentary directed by filmmaker Nelson George about Magic Johnson and the events leading up to his announcement on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had contracted the HIV virus and would retire from the game of basketball. The film, appropriately called The Announcement, gave viewers an inside look at how Magic came to contract the HIV virus in the prime of his career, and how he dealt with his shocking condition going forward.

Of course, the film has a somewhat-happy ending: Magic Johnson is alive and well, though he still fights the HIV virus to this day.

Magic never thought he could be affected by HIV/AIDS. At the time, Johnson was crown jewel of the Los Angeles Lakers, which also made him the king of the entire city. As The Announcement showed, celebrities came out in hordes to see Magic Johnson after a game at the L.A. Forum, which was basically the Studio 54 of the West Coast. Even though Johnson never drank or did drugs -- he was always focused on the game of basketball -- he was always the center of attention, especially with women. It didn't hurt that Magic was young, attractive, and 6'9 tall. Oh, and don't forget that enormous smile.

Johnson had a committed relationship with his girlfriend Earlitha Cookie Kelly, who he had met in his years at Michigan State University. The couple married in 1991 and and the Johnsons were expecting their first child together that autumn. 1991 was supposed to be a Magical year. But then, just days after learning that Cookie was pregnant, Johnson got a disturbing phone call from the Lakers' team doctor while out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was told to come home immediately.

Upon returning home to Los Angeles, Johnson learned that through an atypical physical, conducted for the sake of life insurance, he had contracted the HIV virus, which, at the time, had no known treatment. He was told that within weeks, or months, the HIV virus would advance into the AIDS disease, and he would grow weak and die. As Johnson said later, All I heard was a death sentence.

In the days leading up to the announcement, Johnson told his wife Cookie and asked that David Ho, one of the world's foremost experts on HIV/AIDS, to test himself and his wife. About 10 days later, Johnson learned that Cookie did not contract HIV from Magic, and that their unborn baby would not be affected. It was Magic's mistake, and now, it was his burden alone.

How Magic Dealt, And Continues To Deal, With HIV/AIDS

One of the more interesting aspects of The Announcement was how Magic, after learning he had contracted HIV, hid away from the spotlight for the first time in his life. He grew roots to his own couch, and he became depressed. It wasn't until his wife Cookie encouraged him to get off the couch that he figured out how to deal with his disease.

First, he had to tell the public. He must retire from basketball. On Nov. 7, he took the stage at the L.A. Forum and told the world he must leave the game of basketball and become a spokesperson for the disease.

Was I scared? No question about it I was scared, Johnson recalled in the documentary. I wasn't scared to announce it; I wasn't scared of the media. What I was scared of is... would I see them again?

Johnson asked his agent to tell everyone he knew. He told friends, coaches, players, celebrities. Many spurned and neglected Johnson because of his disease -- HIV was still largely unknown at the time, and many believed you could contract the deadly virus through sweat or saliva -- but Magic's opportunities to be with people and friends helped save his life.

Two major moments in The Announcement stood out as contributing factors to Johnson's extended life. The first: Pat Riley, who coached Johnson's Lakers for all five NBA Championships, met with Johnson and helped whip him into shape. The fact that he was willing to practice, and even show his face with Magic, showed that he was a true lifelong friend, through thick and thin. The second: The 1992 Olympics.

Even though Johnson was retired from the NBA, he was nonetheless chosen to compete in the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona. Magic got to be one of the guys again, with some of the best guys in the NBA, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Clyde Drexler, among others. Practicing and playing with the Dream Team was a highlight of Johnson's NBA career, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Magic needed to be around friends, doing what he loved, and he got to enjoy it all one more time.

Over the years, Johnson fought to stay in the public eye and let everyone know that people afflicted by HIV/AIDS were still people. He had a talk show, made multiple Public Servica Announcements, and gave speeches in inner cities. Then, in 1995, there was a medical breakthrough in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. A combination of specific medicines, when used together, had helped AIDS patients on their deathbeds get up and leave the hospital under their own power. Magic learned about the new drugs, and was among the first to try out the experimental AIDS cocktail.

Decades later, Johnson is still taking his own AIDS cocktail three times a day, which costs him thousands of dollars per month, but boosts his immune system to keep him healthy. When he takes the cocktail, Johnson's immune system is identical to that of any other healthy human.

Of course, the number of drugs and the drugs themselves differ for each patient with HIV, but Johnson's combination looks to be working. His drugs, while helpful, do not cure him of his disease, and he must always be aware of his condition. But thankfully, advances in medicine have allowed Johnson to stay in the public spotlight, and the former NBA star has given hope to those who may become afflicted with the deadly HIV/AIDS disease.

There's plenty learn about Magic's journey with HIV, but it boils down to just two key things: Keep your friends close by, and just keep smiling.

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