Magic Johnson & HIV: 20 Years Later, Still Strong

Magic Johnson ( — It was 20 years ago, on Nov. 7, 1991, when Johnson held a news conference announcing that he was HIV-positive and that he would retire after 12 years playing professional basketball. Instead of just withering away, as many thought he would, Magic became a major face in the fight against AIDS.

At the time, most people thought HIV affected only gay men, and his announcement changed that perception. He said he contracted HIV during his NBA career through a string of one-night stands with women from coast to coast.

More than half a million people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died since the beginning of the epidemic in the 1980s.

Bob Costas, the television sports analyst widely considered one of the best in the country, was no different from many athletes, sports fans and basketball experts 20 years ago Monday when Magic Johnson held a news conference to tell the world he was HIV-positive.

“I was stunned,” Costas said, “and my immediate thought was, knowing what we thought we knew about HIV, we would watch Magic Johnson die a public death, that he would waste away. This was what we thought we understood about the virus, that his days were numbered.”

Now the number of days Johnson has ahead of him seems limitless when the strong, healthy-looking basketball great, onetime coach, voluble television commentator and successful businessman puts on his smile and optimism and shakes your hand.

Chris Mullin, who played with Johnson on the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, said that when he sees Johnson anywhere, his own big hand disappears into Johnson’s bigger hands. “It makes you remember,” Mullin said, “just how strong he is.”

How strong he is. Not was.

Twenty years later, some of the men who played with or against Johnson or who stood by his side when he made the HIV announcement say what Costas said.

That they thought Magic would die, sooner rather than later, and that they dreaded what they might watch. “That he would just waste away,” Mullin said. “That’s what we thought we knew.”

Michael Weinstein, president and co-founder of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), said the general feeling in the HIV and AIDS community was simple. “He won’t be with us much longer,” Weinstein said.

Now, Weinstein said, Johnson is a symbol that people can live well with the disease. AHF billboards often feature Johnson’s broad, smiling face and Johnson’s name and image are on mobile testing sites and clinics around the country because Johnson is willing to be a partner to the foundation.

Michael Gottlieb, an HIV/AIDS physician from Los Angeles who, in 1981 co-wrote a study identifying AIDS as a new disease, said he remembers vividly watching Johnson play basketball after making his diagnosis public and saw another player kiss him on the head after a winning game.

“I contrasted that with the attitudes of some players and their willingness to play basketball with him or against him because of exposure to HIV through injuries,” he said. “It was a poignant moment.”

Gottlieb said that Johnson stands as “living proof” of medical progress in the treatment of HIV and AIDS.

“For many,” Gottlieb said, “HIV is a manageable condition. I heard some say that because he’s wealthy he must be getting special treatments, but it’s important to communicate that many people are getting the same results through standard therapy.”

A major component of the Magic Johnson Foundation is devoted to HIV and AIDS awareness. The foundation’s HIV/AIDS program, in partnership with the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has established full-service treatment centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Jacksonville, Fla., offering free or low-cost healthcare for those dealing with the virus. The foundation also holds events each year offering free HIV/AIDS testing. According to the foundation’s website, it has tested nearly 30,000 people and given 1,000 positive diagnoses for the virus.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, who stood by Johnson’s side on the day the announcement was made, said, “Magic changed the debate about HIV on a global scale because the person suddenly afflicted was a beloved athlete of world renown. We all assumed he would be dead soon and he was busy reassuring all of us.”

The Key To Survival: A Positive Attitude

Fred Stabley Jr., the former Lansing State Journal reporter who came up with the nickname “Magic” when he covered Johnson at Everett High School, said Johnson’s nearly superhuman ability to be positive has served him well.

“I don’t think he ever thought for a moment that he wasn’t going to beat this thing,” Stabley said in an interview. “Just like he never thought he was going to lose a game.”

The key to Johnson maintaining his health is a daily drug regimen and daily physical exercise, including 5-mile runs from his Beverly Hills home to work. He also works out at the Michigan Athletic Club when he’s visiting family in the Lansing area, friends say.

Johnson heads Magic Johnson Enterprises, which operates movie theaters and other businesses in urban neighborhoods and oversees the Magic Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit that supports HIV/AIDS education and testing, including mobile Magic Johnson-branded HIV testing units.

When asked about his health in September, during a surprise visit to Everett to tell students to dream big and work hard, Johnson responded, “Outstanding.”