When Magic Johnson’s iconic basketball career was interrupted by an astonishing HIV diagnosis three decades ago, the newly married NBA legend had no idea how much time he had left to live or how long he would be. how the virus would affect his wife and their unborn child.
“You just sit there and say, what does that mean? Am I going to die?” “He told Gayle King, co-host of” CBS Mornings. “
Johnson, who remains undetectable by HIV to this day, opened up about his life with the virus and his career in an exclusive interview with “CBS Mornings” almost 30 years after publicly announcing his HIV diagnosis.
Today, the Lakers star is a loving father and grandfather, successful businessman, philanthropist, and the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises. He and Cookie have been together all this time, and neither she nor their son, Earvin Johnson III, has HIV.
At the time of his diagnosis, Johnson believed the virus to be a death sentence.
“I really had to learn a lot about the disease, HIV as well as AIDS. I had to make sure I had an open mind enough to ask a lot of questions, to get a lot of information from different people,” he said. he declared. .
Johnson first learned of his diagnosis after a routine physical exam prior to the 1991-92 NBA season. He was called home after a preseason game in Utah, so that Lakers’ team doctor Dr. Michael Mellman could break the news in person. When Johnson first heard the news he was “devastated,” he said.
“I ask him 100 times: ‘are you sure? “” Johnson remembers asking his doctor. “And they say, ‘Hey, we did the tests a few times, and yes, you have HIV.’ And so I just lost it right there, you know? “
Mellman told him he had a chance of a long life with all the new drugs in development, Johnson said. But the hardest part of his diagnosis, he said, was going home and talking to his wife.
“It was difficult because I loved her so much and I hated hurting her,” he said.
When Johnson broke the news to her, Cookie knew it was “probably through sexual contact,” since he hadn’t received a blood transfusion, but she was worried about something else.
“It wasn’t how he got it that was important to me. It was, ‘You might die. “And it won out on everything,” she told CBS News.
The couple, who met while a student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, got married about a month before her diagnosis and they had just learned that she was pregnant.
Johnson said it was a huge relief when his wife and baby’s test results came back negative.
“Yes, because I was scared to death,” he said. “I wanted to make sure she was okay, the baby was okay, and then I could go ahead and try to make sure I was okay.”
Cookie was always by her husband’s side, but initially she didn’t want him to hold the now famous November 7, 1991 press conference announcing his diagnosis – and his short-lived retirement – due to the stigma surrounding AIDS. .
“Back then, people weren’t educated. So they thought you couldn’t touch people, you couldn’t hug people,” she said. “And I didn’t want people to treat us like we were lepers.”
Cookie eventually went to the press conference wearing a white suit that she said symbolized “brightness” and “a future.”
Johnson then attacked the stigma of HIV with the same passion he displayed on the ground, starting the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise awareness about the virus, then pushing Congress and the White House to spend money to fight it. disease.
But he still wanted to play basketball, and his first retirement wouldn’t last long.
Even though Johnson hadn’t played a single regular season game, fans voted him to the NBA All-Star team in 1992. And a few months later, he would play in the US Olympic Dream Team.
“It turned out to be the right decision,” he said. “It has helped people who were living with not only HIV and AIDS, but any disease that you can live with, you can be – live a productive life.”
There have been mixed reviews of his return, with several players uncomfortable playing alongside an HIV-positive athlete. Even one of his Olympic teammates, Karl Malone, has expressed concern about having to play against Johnson after being cut off on the pitch in a game.
“Yeah, I got cut. And I was really upset with the backlash because I just played with a lot of guys who didn’t want me to come back,” Johnson said.
He ended up retiring again – before returning to the sport he loved once again in 1996.
“I said to Cookie, I said, ‘You know what? Maybe I should consider playing one more time, “Johnson said, noting that he wanted” to end it the right way. “
“And that’s why I came back,” he said. “I finished it the way I wanted it to end.”
After that, his focus finally started to change. He would sit on the couch and watch the Lakers play, thinking, “I should be here,” he recalls. But Cookie came home one day and said something that “changed my life,” Johnson said.
His wife also remembers this moment.
“‘I’m looking at you like that sitting on that couch. He’s not the man I married,” she recalls telling him. “‘You know, the man I married was a hard worker. You know, he was changing the world. He had all these ideas. He was so full of life. I don’t know who he is. You have to. get up and figure that out. ‘”
This real discourse has proven effective. Today, Johnson heads the board as CEO of his namesake company, an investment firm focused on delivering high quality products and services to underserved communities.
And although his HIV is still undetectable, he has to take his medicine every day.
“A cocktail, once a day,” he says. “It’s gone from three times a day, now just once. And so it’s all good.”