Magic Johnson 20 Years Later
“God gave me this disease, and he gave it to the right guy. I’m going to beat this, and do something really good with it.”
- Magic Johnson, late October, 1991
Exactly 20 years ago to this day, Magic Johnson announced to the world that he had contracted the HIV virus in an emotional press conference at the Great Western Forum. The moment on Nov. 7, 1991, was so somber, so difficult for all: HIV was at that time thought to be a death sentence.
Yet look at Magic, twenty years later at Staples Center, standing tall, strong and vibrant, the virus under control thanks to consistent treatment and a healthy lifestyle.
“Here I am 20 years later,” Johnson said simply, his patented smile in full bloom. “Wow. What a blessing.”
When he was diagnosed, Johnson met Dr. David Ho, among the foremost experts on HIV/AIDS as the founding scientific director and CEO of Aaron Diamond AIDS research center and Irene Diamond professor at Rockwell University.
“I met Earvin on one of his darkest days, when he found out he was HIV positive,” said Ho. “On that day, I witnessed his courage and determination. He confronted the tragic news with a great, positive attitude. He did not try to hide his status.
“Instead, he not only revealed the news to the world, but also used the opportunity to spread awareness about this pandemic, all of this while confronting his possible mortality.”
As of Nov. 7, 2011, Johnson said he does not struggle with the virus. He continues to take pills, though the amount has decreased immensely from what was necessary in 1991 thanks to remarkable developments in the drugs used to treat HIV.
“It’s sufficient to say that (Johnson’s) virus is under control, but no one is cured of HIV infection,” explained Dr. Ho. “The virus is still present, which is why Earvin continues to take this medication. Our Hall of Famer is now the symbol of treatment success … what he gets is typical of what most American patients receive.”
The medication, Dr. Ho detailed, has improveddramatically. For many American patients, one pill per night would serve the purpose of what an entire cocktail of pills may have served in 1995 or 1996.
And while Johnson is happy to now be the face of the disease, to be someone who can influence so many through the Magic Johnson Foundation – which has raised $10 million for the cause – he’s all too aware of how incredibly far there is to go.
“There have been millions and millions of people who have died since I was (diagnosed) ... we must change the mindset, we must do a better job (towards) education,” he said. "I often say I'm good for the virus and bad for it. I'm good because I'm doing better ... On the flip side, people see that I'm doing well so they kind of relax on HIV and AIDS."
On the contrary, Dr. Ho said that HIV/AIDS continues to be perhaps the “worst plague” in human history.
“Twenty five million have died already, 30 some million are living with the virus, and each day, another 7,000 new infections occur globally, mostly in the developing world,” he explained. “There is no end in site at this point. Even in the U.S., we continue to have 50 to 60 thousand new cases per year.”
Both Ho and Johnson urged against complacency, and towards vigilance, in the continued fight. There is no cure and there is novaccine, leaving education and awareness as the primary weapons to fight HIV.
On the 20th anniversary of Magic’s announcement, he used his platform not only to pledge continued support, but to gather $25,000 donations from people like Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss and his former coach, Pat Riley, for a total of $1 million, much of it to further causes like free testing and awareness that Johnson's foundation has supported for years.
Lakers head athletic trainer Gary Vitti, one of a very select few to know about Magic’s disease before it was made public, had a thought to conclude his shared memories of the most difficult days surrounding the announcement:
“Maybe the world is a better place because Earvin Johnson contracted HIV.”
With all that Johnson has done and continues to do for the cause, Vitti’s rhetorical question needs not an explicit answer.