LOS ANGELES — If Magic Johnson had known just how well he could live with HIV, he wouldn’t have retired from the Lakers on Nov. 7, 1991.
Johnson would never change what he did for the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic when he publicly revealed his diagnosis to a stunned world. His courage that day, along with two subsequent decades of vibrant living, forever altered attitudes about the virus and its effects.
Magic is simply glad the world knows such happy endings are possible with access to treatment and vigilance.
“At that time, it was the right decision,” Johnson said Monday on the 20th anniversary of his stunning retirement. “If I knew what I knew today, that I could still play basketball and do my thing, I probably wouldn’t have retired. But I’m a guy that doesn’t have regrets. I don’t look back. I’m happy, because I wanted to be here a long time. We made the right call at that time.”
Johnson recognized the occasion at Staples Center on Monday with an upbeat celebration and a message of steadfastness. Dozens of politicians, celebrities and Lakers greats from Jerry West and Pat Riley to James Worthy and Michael Cooper joined Johnson and AIDS researcher David Ho for a luncheon, and the Magic Johnson Foundation announced a $1 million gift to continue its mission for worldwide HIV awareness and testing.
Two decades after his shocking admission and quick retirement at 32, Johnson’s doctors say he’s a 52-year-old specimen of health, comfortably managing HIV with a daily regimen of drugs and exercise.
While he once took upwards of 15 pills several times a day, he now requires just a few daily medications. He rises around 5 a.m. each day for a vigorous workout — everything from stretching and running to Tae Bo — before spending his days overseeing his large business empire.
Yet Johnson worries his strong health could encourage complacency, and he sees the anniversary of his historic announcement as a call to renew dedication to the cause.
“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.”
Johnson famously couldn’t stay away from basketball after his retirement, spreading the truth about HIV transmission to players and fans who sometimes balked at his participation. He was the MVP of the 1992 All-Star game and won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics before briefly coaching the Lakers in 1994 and returning to the court for 32 games in 1996, finally retiring in uniform.
Johnson is now a hugely successful businessman, a basketball commentator, a doting husband and a grandfather to his son Andre’s two children. Yet he’s still raising money and awareness, always working to create the same limitless future for others.
“The only problem is, I would be happier if the numbers in the black and brown communities would go down,” Johnson said, citing the majority of each year’s 60,000 new U.S. cases of HIV in minority communities. “There’s been millions of people that have died since I announced 20 years ago, and so this is a bittersweet day. Yes, I’m living, but people are still getting this virus even as we speak. We must change the mindset, and we must do a better job educating those who live in urban America about this disease.”