Twenty years to the day since NBA superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson told the world he had HIV, he stood in front of another phalanx of reporters in Los Angeles — but this time with better news.
At a press conference Monday at the Staples Center, the former Laker accepted a million-dollar check — money given by many of his wealthy friends in the entertainment industry and business world — for the Magic Johnson Foundation, which provides scholarships, housing, and access to HIV testing in disadvantaged communities.
While the press conference was mostly joyous, Johnson did choke up when discussing going public with his status and subsequently retiring from the NBA. Johnson’s wife, Cookie, initially has reservations about the announcement, Johnson recalled. Their mutual decision was influenced by discussions with Elisabeth Glaser, the pediatric AIDS activist who was succumbing to AIDS at the time.
“[Glaser] asked me to become the face of the disease,” Johnson recalls. And in the end, he and Cookie “wanted to save lives and educate people.”
When asked by The Advocate whether he was frustrated that the world was years from a cure or vaccine, Johnson said he didn’t have time to be frustrated. He instead was concerned with bringing infections down, especially among African-Americans and Latinos. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint a harsh picture, especially for blacks. Though they only make up 14% of the population, African-Americans account for 46% of all people in the country living with HIV. They also represent nearly half of all new infections each year. Press materials from the Magic Johnson Foundation say gay black men are getting HIV at alarming rates; infections among young black men who have sex with men increased 48% from 2006 to 2009, from 4,400 to 6,500.
“This is a bittersweet day,” Johnson said. On the persistent infections and the stigma that HIV still carries in minority communities, he said, “We must change the mind-sets and do a better job of educating those who live in urban America. I dedicate my life to do that; I’ve been around the world talking about this disease, and I will continue to do so.” Watch Johnson’s speech below.
Johnson’s doctor, AIDS researcher and former Time man of the year David Ho, sat next to his famous patient during the press conference. Prior to Johnson’s speech, Ho discussed Johnson’s health, which he said is excellent, thanks to antiretroviral drugs, ample exercise, and an optimism that helped carry Johnson through when he first tested HIV-positive.
“He confronted the news [of his diagnosis] with a positive attitude,” Ho said at the press conference. “He didn’t hide his status; he wanted to spread the word about this pandemic.” Two decades later, he still is.