Honorable Battle

by December 03, 2013

by Daniel Friedman / @DFried615

It was over 20 years ago that Magic Johnson took a routine physical for the Los Angeles Lakers and found out that he was HIV positive. Instead of coming back to take revenge on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls after losing the 1991 NBA Finals in five games, Johnson was left contemplating his future after basketball.

On November 7, 1991, Johnson held an emotional press conference and announced that he had contracted HIV and would be ending his playing career. With five NBA titles, three Finals MVP awards, three regular-season MVP awards, 17,707 points, 10,141 assists and 12 All-Star selections, Johnson would hang up his kicks for good to fight a different kind of battle.

That moment stands in time as one of the most memorable in sports history. One of the greatest players in the game’s history gave it all up so that he could fight for his life. Looking back now, Johnson admits, “God has really blessed me…The medicine has done its part.”

With what he knows about the treatment options today, Johnson may regret his decision to retire from the game of basketball considering what could have been if he remained in the game, bumping heads with the likes of Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan for a few more years, with his sights set on a sixth championship ring. But on that memorable day in November, Johnson resolved to dedicate his life to spreading awareness about the disease that took the game away from him.

Last month, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY, Johnson explained to a diverse crowd of community leaders, journalists and local residents how he’s still able to stay healthy after his diagnosis.

“When I think about 22 years ago, and where we are today, we’ve made great strides,” said Johnson. “When I made my announcement, we only had one drug at that time. Now, when you look at the landscape, there are over 30 drugs.”

In recognition of World AIDS Day, the media event and panel discussion were sponsored by the Reed for Hope Foundation and OraSure Technologies, the maker of a revolutionary new in-home HIV testing product. The panel—headlined by Johnson, La La Anthony, Dr. Rachel Ross and Demetria L. Lucas—spoke to the issues facing the community in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Johnson explained to the Harlem community that the biggest issues facing AIDS awareness were that people were either not going out and getting tested, or they were going to get tested, but not returning to retrieve their results. “They don’t go back for the results because they’re scared to know the outcome,” said Johnson.

When I asked Johnson about how someone can overcome the fear of knowing the results of a test of that magnitude, he explained, “I would want to know as a man. I would want my girlfriend or wife to know.”

“How are we going to get over the fear?” Johnson continued. “That’s a tough call because we’ve been trying to crack that nut for a long time. I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

Johnson spoke about a disconnect in the African-American community: “We’re still in denial and we still think it can’t happen to us. We’re doing a better job of trying to work together, but young people are still feeling that no matter what, it can’t happen to them.”

He believes that his story may be to blame for the it-can’t-happen-to-me mindset. “I’ve been the blessing and the curse for HIV and AIDS in the black community,” said Johnson. “I’ve been the blessing because I came out and announced it publicly and at that time, everybody ran out and got tested. But I’ve been the curse because now young people can say, ‘If I get it, I can be like Magic and I can live a long time.’”

Johnson urges that this is not always the case. He wants people to understand that the virus can act differently in everybody. When addressing the thoughts that people may have about Johnson still being alive, he points to early detection and a select number of medications that he takes on a regular basis with the help of his wife, Cookie.

The idea that Johnson was able to contain a disease as bad as HIV is hard for some to believe. But according to statistics released by the AIDS Journal, there is “no increase in risk of death for patients with well-controlled HIV” when compared to the average person.

Johnson has been one the few professional athletes in the United States to contract HIV and announce it to the public. In sports history, only Olympic diver George Louganis, former NFL tight end Jerry Smith, NASCAR driver Tim Richmond and tennis champion Arthur Ashe were known to have contracted the virus. Whether the numbers have dropped in the athletic community or sports professionals are simply staying mum on the subject in today’s age of information, Johnson has continued to travel around the world and spread the word.

“It was now over 22 years that I made my announcement of living with HIV, and at that time, it was a white, gay man’s disease. Now, there are African-Americans and Latinos leading in every category. The difference is that they came together as a community and really worked to make sure that everybody was educated.”