Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Magic Johnson Still Beating HIV 20 Years Later

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“I often say I’m good for the virus, and bad for it,” Johnson said. “Good because I’m doing well, and that I can go out and try and raise the awareness level, get people to go get tested … but on the flip side of that, people see that I’m doing well, so they’ve kind of relaxed on HIV and AIDS. People think that now if they get the virus, they’ll do well, but a couple million will die this year.”

While Johnson mostly remembers a feeling of confidence derived from the unflinching support of his wife, Cookie, on the day of his announcement, his fellow Lakers have no trouble recalling the shock and confusion they felt 20 years ago.

“It stunned me, and I think I was only semi-conscious,” Lakers owner Jerry Buss said. “The whole day is just like a blur in my mind. I remember Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) had to assist me. I don’t think I had enough blood in the brain.”

Worthy remembers the Lakers being sent from practice at Loyola Marymount to the Forum, with no idea why. The power forward wondered whether West was retiring from his executive job, or perhaps Johnson was seriously injured after missing the previous week of practice.

“When he announced, it was a reality check, because at that time, it could have been anybody,” Worthy said. “A lot of people started to wonder about themselves, especially people who had never been tested before. … He’s taught us all a valuable lesson. Back in the early `90s, you thought it was a death (sentence). You thought it was over. To see him put meaning on a disease that only had one meaning, that was great.”

Ho, a pioneering researcher who grew up in Los Angeles idolizing West and Elgin Baylor, said he met Johnson “on one of his darkest days” after his diagnosis. Ho has always been impressed by Johnson’s upbeat willingness to acknowledge his condition, using himself to raise funds for research and treatment.

Ho also shot down the long-held suspicion that Johnson easily managed the virus because his wealth and celebrity gave him access to preferential treatment. Johnson’s condition is “quite typical” at this point in the virus’ treatment, he said.

“All of us working in the field are grateful to him and his foundation for doing so, because this is a plague that continues to rage,” Ho said. “Because of therapeutic success, there is too much complacency in this country about this pandemic. We still need to develop new and better drugs. We have drugs that control HIV, but we don’t have a cure, so research must continue.”

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