20 Years After HIV Announcement, Magic Johnson Emphasizes: “I Am Not Cured”

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Note: In November 2011, we published these video excerpts of Magic Johnson’s interview with FRONTLINE on the 20th anniversary of his HIV diagnosis.  We’ve updated the post with an edited transcript of his extended interview, which was conducted on June 16, 2011.

The announcement, 20 years ago today, came as a shock: “Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire today from the Lakers,” Earvin “Magic” Johnson, with his wife Cookie at his side, told a packed room of sports reporters, many of whom cried when they heard the news.

In 1991, HIV/AIDS was still largely seen as a disease that affected gay men and drug addicts — despite its growing encroachment in the African American community. It would be five years before the invention of the life-saving “triple cocktail” drug therapy that would no longer mean HIV infection was a death sentence.

At the time, very few celebrities had gone public with an HIV diagnosis and none with as many adoring fans as Johnson, who admitted to having contracted the disease from unprotected heterosexual sex. 

The impact of Johnson’s announcement was huge, explains Dr. Marsha Martin, who was the special assistant on HIV/AIDS policy to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and who now works as the director of Get Screened Oakland, a group dedicated to increasing HIV testing in Oakland, Calif.:

The public at large learned something and the black folks learned something. … You can live with this, and you also don’t have to discuss the how, when and why. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is you can be tested, you can get treated. And if you do your best, try to be as healthy as you can, take your medicines, do your exercise, eat properly, have the support of your family, you can make it.

FRONTLINE producer Renata Simone has covered the AIDS epidemic since 1985, most recently in the award-winning FRONTLINE series The Age of AIDSSimone interviewed Johnson last June for her upcoming film on AIDS in Black America, which will air on FRONTLINE next year.

Johnson told us his focus now is on motivating people to get educated and get tested. He notes that the majority of new cases are in the African American and Latino communities — and that 50 percent of those who do get tested don’t go back for results. “Right now, we need people to just first of all, get tested, and go get your results. We have to drive these numbers down, especially in the minority community.”

Here are extended excerpts from his interview.

Finding Out He Was Infected

Johnson had traveled to Utah for a preseason game when he received an unexpected phone call from his doctor telling him he needed to return immediately. “I am going to die,” he thought upon hearing the news. But after reassurance from his doctors — Lakers team physician Dr. Michael Mellman and Dr. David Ho, who invented the “triple cocktail” treatment — Johnson’s main concern was “How am I going to live for a long time?”

Why He Decided to Go Public

It was AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser who convinced Johnson to go public with his diagnosis.  Glaser had contracted HIV during a blood transfusion while she was giving birth to daughter Ariel, and she had passed the virus on to Ariel and her son Jake. “She made me promise before she died that I would become the face of the disease and really go out and help people and educate people about it,” Johnson recalls. Most crucially, Glaser was able to convince Cookie, who was two months pregnant at the time, that “the world should know that Magic Johnson had HIV.”

“I Am Not Cured”

Over the last 20 years, Johnson has been working to dispel myths about HIV.  “You can’t get AIDS from a hug or a handshake or a meal with a friend,” is the message in this public service announcement he made with fellow basketball star Yao Ming. But among the biggest myths he wants to set straight is that he has not been cured.

“It’s A Burden Trying to Keep A Secret”

Johnson says that he was “blessed” in having the support of his family after his diagnosis, but he knows that’s not always the reality. He has a message for those struggling with how to talk to their families: “If your uncle don’t want to be your uncle no more, get another uncle.”

His Message for Young Women

Teens “must educate themselves,” says Johnson. “They must have safe sex.” He said that in the days before his interview with FRONTLINE, he had just had “the birds and bees talk” with his 16-year-old daughter Elisa. “You have to have these conversations, because they are important,” he explained. “Especially coming from me: I am living with this virus. I don’t want [my kids] to ever have it, so I have to tell them … what can happen to them if they do the same thing I did.” But Johnson has a special message for young women:

 


Extended Interview Transcript

Tell me a little bit about the stuff that you do in the communities.

I have been blessed to really touch the community in a positive way, and whether it’s through the educational side through the Magic Johnson Foundation, we have about 120, 125 students on scholarship. We will increase that to be about 150 next year, and they can [attend] the college of their choice. … A lot of them have good grades, but they don’t have the financial means to go to college, so we try to help them go and also make sure we become their stepparents in a sense, father and mother figure to them all the four years they’re in college.

Then we try to touch the community with our technology centers. We have 19 of them, and young kids who can’t afford to have a computer in their own home, as well as parents and their grandparents, now they have access to one, because if they’re not allowed or they can’t get to a computer, there’s no way they can keep up with the world and keep up their grades in terms of school. …

We also financially educate them on things that are important to them: how to start their own business, how to grow their business as well as the main thing is, how do they get access to capital? And if we know that information in their state or in their city, we try to let them know about that as well.

” It’s a burden trying to keep a secret. It’s hard. It probably takes more out of you trying to hold it and keep it than it does for you to really let it out. That’s why I am glad I didn’t have to go through that. I just told everybody…”

And then the home loan process. A lot of time in our technology centers we try to teach them about the home loan process, and not just getting a home but how to keep a home, and that’s really important to people of color right now, especially with the mortgage crisis that’s going on.

So when you think about Magic Johnson Foundation, we have job fairs; we have health fairs. We’re able to touch the community in so many different ways. And it’s very important to me that we do that and that people of color and the minorities that live in urban America know that they can come to Magic Johnson Foundation and Magic Johnson Enterprises for anything.

And then we put a lot of people to work. When you think about our for-profit businesses — the Starbucks that I used to own and the Magic Johnson Theatres, the Magic Johnson 24 Hour Fitness and on and on, Soul Train, Vibe, all the businesses that I have — we are able to put 30,000 minorities to work each and every day, and that’s really important as well so they can take care of themselves and their families.

When you think about all the things we do in the communities, it’s a lot, and it covers probably over 100 cities and 24 states, and so that’s what I am all about.

I know a little bit about your humble beginnings, your mom and dad. Can you talk about that a little bit?

God blessed me with two unbelievable parents, and I am just like both of them. I have the smile and charisma of my mother and the big heart of my mom, because she wants to save the world and help the world, so I am just like her.

And then I am just like my dad. I am strong and a workaholic. My dad worked two jobs his whole life, and so I told him he’s the reason I have 20 jobs.

They were about family values; they were about education. They pushed their upbringing on us so that we would be good people in society, and also they showed us how to be great parents when we got married, and great men.

My father was a great example of a strong and good man and Christian man, and my mother taught all my six sisters how to be young ladies and mothers and how to take care of your family. And so I think they were — they still are — great examples for all of us to their kids and to the world, too.

… I just wanted to ask you — and it may be hard to pick one — but a favorite moment in your career which really embodied what you get out of basketball. What’s a favorite moment, a favorite play?

I think that probably the one moment was 1987 when we beat the Boston Celtics, and I was able to hit a hook shot in the last seconds to win the game for the Lakers, and we went on to win the series, and that put us up 3-1. That’s probably the one great moment.

But [there was also] the Olympic moment, when I got a chance to represent the United States and my country and play with the greatest players in the world — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and so on.

And then probably the other moment was when I was a rookie, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out, and we were up 3-2 and we had to go to Philadelphia to win a big game, and nobody thought we could win that game without him. I end up scoring 42 points and 15 rebounds and seven assists, and we won the game. …

I was blessed to have a great career to play with some unbelievable players, some hall of famers, and Kareem and James Worthy and then some great people who were outstanding players and who are doing great in life, like Michael Cooper, who’s coaching women’s basketball at USC [University of Southern California], and Byron Scott is the head coach of Cleveland Cavaliers; Mitch Kupchak is general manager running the Lakers; Kurt Rambis is the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. …

The ’90-91 season, huge season, 20-point scoring average, 12 assists — I am reading statistics — seven rebounds per game. Fun season. It was a great season. We made it all the way to the championship and lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the championship, and I was thinking, wow, if we make a couple changes, we could be right back there next season.

And we were into the next season, exhibition season, and I got a call from our doctor that said, “You’ve got to come home.” And we were in Utah, and I said, “Well, can I come home after the game?” We were coming home anyway, and he said, “No, you’ve got to come home right now.” So I flew back to L.A., and when I walked in his office and sat down in his chair and said, “What’s up?,” he begins to tell me that I have HIV.

And so, you know, a lot of times in your life, I thought I had made all the right moves and all the right decisions, and I was really careful about what I was going to get into and what I decided to do, and I thought I made all the right moves. And then, just at that moment, you find out you didn’t make all the right moves, and your life is turned upside down in just a matter of seconds.

And it was a difficult thing to hear, and I have to be honest: At that time I knew about AIDS and HIV, but I didn’t know a lot about it, so –

What did you think?

You know, I was like most people: I am going to die. At the very first, when he first announced it to me, I thought: “Oh, man, I am going to die. I think it’s over.” And he said: “No, no, it’s not like that. So what we have to do is run a series of tests, and the good thing is we caught it early.” And I said, “How am I going to live for a long time?,” because [that's] the main thing that’s on my mind. He said, “Well, the first thing you have to do is take your meds,” and I said,” OK, I can do that.” And the second thing he said was, “You’ve got to be comfortable with your new status.”

This is your doctor?

Yes, this [is] Dr. [Michael] Mellman. And so I said, “OK.” “And you have to have a positive attitude and work out,” and I said, “OK.” So he said, “Let me get you in touch with a leading doctor in HIV and AIDS, Dr. [David] Ho, and also you can talk to him.” And basically Dr. Ho said, “You’re going to be fine.” There’s a lot of drugs coming down the pipeline, because at that time AZT was the only thing out at that time, but he said there was a lot of drugs coming behind that.

And just his attitude — Dr. Ho was such an upbeat guy. It just made me feel upbeat and feel better about my situation, and his knowledge of the disease made me feel so much better as well.

And so we ran a couple of different series of blood tests, and then he got back to me and prescribed what I had to take and how much of it, and it’s really been great being under the care of Dr. Ho. …

Did you ever have any side effects?

I never had any side effects. I am one of those — and I think what helped me, too, is I kept working out, and when it could have been tough for me in terms of that, I really busted through that tough period because I wasn’t going to let it get me.

I kept working out on the treadmill, and I kept lifting weights, and I kept running and playing basketball, and I think that I was able to deal with the medicine. I think when you first start taking that much medicine, it does change you and your body somewhat, and so I had to just get used to the change, but after four or five months of that, my system got used to it. I got used to it, and I just adjusted to it, and it was fine after that.

Do you get pill fatigue? 

Of course, anybody would. But I think that I was following the program because it was working for me, and I think that Dr. Ho answering all the questions and being available at any time, especially that first year, too, because I had so many questions. What if I get a cold? Because you think everything’s going to trigger something, but that’s not the case.

And so he calmed me down every time I had a thought in my mind. Every time I had a question he answered it, so Dr. Ho has been the best. I really appreciate him taking me on as a patient and really just educating me about the whole HIV and AIDS fight well enough so I could [speak] out and speak about it in an intelligent matter.

And people don’t realize I have been in this fight for 20 years. I been on President [George H.W.] Bush’s HIV/AIDS council. I have traveled around to different cities, and I went to different hospices that were opening at that time. So I have done a lot, raised money for HIV and AIDS.

But the one person I owe a lot of credit to is Elizabeth Glaser, because Elizabeth helped me out so much. At that time she was dying of AIDS, and I needed someone to talk to me who was actually going through it. And one of my friends hooked me up with her, and she decided to see me, and she was the one who really helped me understand that I should go public and that I was going to be OK, and that she wanted me to be the face of the disease.

And she made me promise before she died that I would become the face of the disease and really go out and help people and educate people about it. And then I asked her if she would talk to [my wife] Cookie, because Cookie was having trouble with me thinking about going public. And I think she also calmed Cookie down and told her how great it would be for the world to know that Magic Johnson had HIV, and once she got done with Cookie for that hour or two, right after that Cookie said, “OK, let’s go public.”

So Elizabeth Glaser, I her owe so much, and I thank her all the time, and [the Elizabeth Glaser] Pediatric AIDS [Foundation], they’re incredible now. She started that whole fund-raiser, and they’ve raised millions and millions of dollars.

… In November ’91, you did the famous press conference. Could you see the sports writers crying? I heard the sports writers were crying.

Yeah, we knew each other personally; it was more than just a player and sports writers or sports writers and this player. And what made it great was they were my friends, so everybody out there was crying.

I met with [Lakers' owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss beforehand, and we were crying. … Jerry West was the general manger then; we cried. It was an emotional time. And then I met with all the players before I went onstage to tell the world, and oh, man, everybody was crying. We all hugged each other. It was a tough moment.

And nobody knew what the outcome would be for me, and I think they were crying because they thought that I was going to die soon. I had to get myself together to see the guys I always go to war with and that I loved and that I have supported them and they have supported me for all those many years, and we won all those championships together, and then for me to go out in front of those cameras to tell the world  — and so it was a difficult moment, yet as I look back on it now, a good moment.

How did you get yourself together?

I am a big believer in God, and I just prayed, and I just went out there. And I am not a guy who runs away from challenges; I meet challenges head-on. I am not a guy who stays down long. I have always been an upbeat person, so I just talked to myself and said, “Look, you’ve always been upbeat about everything; this is no different now.” And so I just went out there and did what Earvin Johnson should do and just shared with the world what has happened to me.

… You had no hesitation in sharing that with Cookie.

When I found out from Dr. Mellman, it was a tough drive home. We have been together since we were freshmen in college, and my whole thing in life is not to hurt her. We’ve always had a great relationship, first boyfriend and girlfriend, then husband and wife, and we’re best friends. So the hardest thing I had to do is drive home and tell her I had HIV.

I’d been through playing against Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, all of that, but nothing was more difficult than hurting the person who loved me the most, who cared about me the most, and the tough thing is she was pregnant with our son E.J., and I didn’t know what that meant for him as well.

So as I got to our house, she knew something was wrong. … I said, “We’ve got to sit down,” and so I sat her down and I told her, “You know, I just found out from Dr. Mellman that I have HIV.”

And she started to cry, of course, and wanted to know what that meant for her and the baby, and a lot of the time when you can’t supply an answer to your wife that’s even more difficult, and I told her that she had to run some tests starting tomorrow, and we would find out in a few days what that meant for her and the baby.

And I really think God looked out for me with Cookie and the baby, our baby who is now 19, E.J., because when we found out the news that she did not have HIV and the baby was fine as well, I knew then that I had a chance to live for a long time, because I think that if she had been infected, that would have destroyed me. …

And then when she decided to stay, because I told her, “I could understand if you wanted to leave me,” and she hit me so hard upside my head, and she said, “No, we’re going to beat this together.” And when you look back on it, a person living with HIV or anything, not just HIV, they need the support of their partner and their family, but at least if they get it from their partner, they can beat it; they can survive; they can live for a long time.

With that support, and with her saying she’s going to stay, that allowed us then to really concentrate on me, and what I had to do to be around with her and my three kids for a long time. …

So I thank her for staying on me about taking my meds, staying on me about working out, really staying on me about getting my rest. She’s been an unbelievable wife and mother, I tell you, and a wife who educated herself about HIV and AIDS.

And then the wonderful thing is she started going out and speaking about it, how to live with a person who has HIV. It was great that she got out and started speaking at churches and women’s groups, and she’s been a dynamic speaker, and she can tell people firsthand how it is to deal with somebody like myself, and how she felt and how she did it, you know, [how] she stayed strong in a tough situation, and how we both survived.

And she never rejected you?

No.

You’ve experienced that, though, people having adverse reactions?

Yeah, I dealt with that in a small way but in a big way with the NBA. The NBA commissioner [David] Stern was wonderful. From day one, the NBA and Commissioner Stern have supported me 1,000 and 1 million percent, and so did the other owners and a lot of the coaches and so on.

But then a few players came out that they didn’t want to play against me for some reason or another. And I think that really hurt me, because I just proved to them that nothing was going to happen in the Olympics, so when I decided to come back to the league, they didn’t want it to happen. That really discouraged me, so I decided not to come back.

But I decided to channel that negative energy into positive energy by educating them. So that’s what I decided to do. I set out to educate the players that you can play against me or any other person with HIV, that I am just as healthy as they are.

So I was able to do that, years later, and I educated the world by playing in the Olympics and being successful, and I educated the players of the NBA when I came back four years later and made a successful comeback to the Lakers, and I am glad I did, because I wanted to go out my way. I didn’t want HIV to be the reason I retired from basketball. I wanted to retire myself. …

I had a great time being retired, and then I wanted to start my second life, because there is life after basketball. And so that’s life for everybody while you’re dealing with HIV. That’s the great thing about it, is that I showed others living with the disease that you can have an everyday job, and you can live and be a successful person even with the virus.

… A.C. Green, right, you had a sort of arc with him. You had a beginning when it wasn’t so good, he had a negative reaction, and then you educated him. Can you briefly tell us that story?

Well, A.C. is a very religious man, so he felt that the way I got the disease, you know, sleeping with a lot of women, he had a problem with that, and so then he had a negative reaction.

So as I began to talk to A.C., because we had a close relationship before this went down, I said: “You know, we all make mistakes. I made a mistake, and it’s costing me.” “You know,” I told him, “I am giving up the game I love, and … HIV is going to affect me in a big, big way because I can’t play basketball any longer.”

At that time I said I didn’t know how long I was going to be on earth anymore, because I’ve got to worry now about my health. I said: “So, you know, I need you to support me, not be upset and not be disappointed, because there is no man that’s perfect. You’re not perfect.” And I told him he’s not perfect. I told him, “You’ve made mistakes, and so have I.” And so — oh, man, when I told him that, he just broke down and started crying and hugged me and prayed for me, and that was a big step for both of us. And what you do is move on, and he got educated, too.

And I think that all the players, not just the NBA, players of all different sports got educated, and then a lot of people got tested, because when you think about what happened, when I announced was very important, because a lot of people ran out and got tested, and we’re seeing that more and more today in the minority community.

The gay community has taken care of their issues and problems in terms of HIV/AIDS. They have done an incredible job. We as heterosexuals need to learn from the gay community because they have rallied together. They have sent a lot of information out there. They go get tested.

Then when you think about heterosexuals, then you think about African Americans and Latinos, who really make up the majority of the new cases now. When I first announced, they would run out and get tested, but the scary thing is they didn’t go back for the results. So then, you know, more than half did go back for the results, but the other half didn’t.

So right now we need people to just first of all get tested. Go get your results. We have to drive the numbers down, especially in the minority community. All the different misinformation and the rumors and the myths, we’ve got to stop that, and we’ve got to read and get the right information.

… What are some of the myths you think we really ought to dispel?

First of all, “Not taking your meds, it will be OK.” “It’s a white man’s disease.” We’ve got to get rid of “You can get it from kissing.” Those types of things.

So tell me straight up, can you get it from kissing?

No. And then also shaking hands, coming in contact like that. So a lot of different things are out there, and then the thing that is really [important] for a person living with HIV in my community is that you’ve got to support the person no matter what. Just like you loved them before you found out they had the virus, you’ve got to love them when you find out they do have the virus, HIV and AIDS.

The support system is so important, so find out and get the right information. I’ve been now 20 years active in getting out to make sure the urban communities and the minorities in those communities have the right information, making sure that I was at high schools and colleges, I was speaking at churches.

And now we’ve got more pastors involved, because the key to the black and Latino community is really the faith-based organizations. And now we have more pastors that have HIV and AIDS, whether they [have] ministries that are dealing with people living with it or they’re delivering meals or they’re helping them with their lodging and their homes.

So I am happy that we have really grown there, and I think that’s helped stabilize the disease in our community once the faith-based organizations came onboard.

… Have people, athletes sought you out for counselor? I am not asking you to reveal anybody; I am just wondering if you have become a secret weapon.

Of course athletes and just people in general have sought me out and asked me, whether it’s [for] information about who they should go see or what they should do, whether it’s them or their family members were diagnosed with HIV, so yes.

And then I have gotten so many calls and letters from around the world, and I have been speaking in Greece, all over the world about HIV and AIDS, in China. I did a great PSA [public service announcement] with Yao Ming in China. I went on an 11-country [tour] in 22 days. I played basketball at night, and during the day I would speak about HIV and AIDS.

I have been all over the world talking about HIV and AIDS, and people have listened, and they have been educated, and they’ve been surprised that I have been here this long and happy at the same time. So — but one drug — we had one when I announced over 20 years ago; now we have over 30. That shows you how the medicine has changed and advanced and gotten better.

When we talk to people, they all think you’re cured, and obviously you’re completely healthy, so can you explain that to people who think you are cured.

I am not cured. I have just been taking my meds. I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, and thank God the HIV virus in my blood system and in my body have laid dead in a sense, and we don’t want anything to wake it up and to make it be active or more active in my body. And so no, there is no cure, and even if I could just have this life that I have and with the virus living inside me, I am OK with that if a cure never comes.

So I think all of us, we just want to live a long time. It used to be an instant death sentence. When you had announced HIV, it would turn into AIDS. But now with the medicine and with all the advanced science that we have today about HIV and AIDS, and people like Dr. Ho and other great people who work in the HIV/AIDS community, if you go and get tested and early detection, you can live for a long time.

… People always ask me, how did Magic Johnson get HIV?

Unprotected sex: That’s how Magic Johnson got HIV. And when you think about, you know, I hope she’s fine, and you try to look back at the partners you’ve had and you try to make sure everybody’s OK. And I made the calls, and so, you know …

That’s hard.

Yeah, it is. It’s hard, but you want to make sure everybody was OK, that, you know, I could get a hold of [those women] I knew I had unprotected sex with, which was a few females, but you have to do it. I would hope that someone would do it for me, too, you know. If something happened to me, I would hope somebody would call me, but it is hard. It was hard because everybody was in a panic because they didn’t know, but I tried to be a man about it, just like I stood up on that podium and was a man announcing it to the world.

That was a big lesson, because as I said, a lot of people in our film contracted [HIV] because of secrecy, because people weren’t truthful with them. What do you say to those people who are keeping secrets?

Look, it’s great that you know your status, no question about it, but it’s bad when you keep it to yourself and don’t tell your partner. I don’t think that’s right. Let them decide. If they want to continue to be sexually active with you, that’s their right, and that’s their decision. But I would believe that most people would want to stay with you and help you live a long and productive life.

I ran into so many people that decided to stay with their partners. One don’t have HIV and the other does, and they decide to stay because they were in love. And that’s what it’s all about, so I think people should share not only with their partner, but people should share with their family, because a lot of people don’t want to tell their partner or their family members.

I think that’s so bad. It doesn’t make any sense. Here this lady or this young man has been your sister or your cousin or your aunt or your uncle or your father or your mother or brother or sister, and it just doesn’t make sense, because they’ve been great, and they still will be great as your relative. Whether you find out they have HIV or not, nothing is going to change them, and as a matter of fact, they need your support more to deal with this.

… It’s a burden trying to keep a secret. It’s hard. It probably takes more out of you trying to hold it and keep it than it does for you to really let it out. That’s why I am glad I didn’t have to go through that. I just told everybody, took a big load off of me, and so I didn’t care if people –

I am going to say this, and it’s very important. If your uncle don’t want to be your uncle no more, get another uncle. If you’re aunt don’t want to be your aunt, get another aunt. I didn’t care if somebody didn’t want to shake my hand anymore or didn’t want to be my friend anymore or didn’t want to be my relative anymore, because I had a bigger problem, and that was how was I going to live for a long time, and stay with the wife that I love and stay being the father of my kids and making sure I was there for them. So I am glad I told the world.

Were you speaking from experiences then? Did you actually have family members who just — who you had to get a new uncle?

No, I was blessed. All my family members flew out here — in fact, too many of them. I had a houseful. My family is a praying family, a Christian family. They had no problem. They love Earvin, and I didn’t have to deal with any of that, but I’ve heard other people’s story where they had to deal with that. …

You said it about your friends I think in some publicity: You find out who your friends really are.

You really do in a crisis, in a tough situation, and you’re going to understand who’s really there supporting you.

… There are people who have said to us: “Twenty years have gone by, and all we have from the athletic world is Magic Johnson. It can’t be that he’s the only HIV-positive athlete.” …

I don’t know if I am or not, but let me just say it like this. Everybody has to deal with their status the way they want to deal with it. I was strong enough to handle the fact that I could go public. I was strong enough for that. Some people may not be strong enough to go public like that, but they should tell their partners and their families, so it’s up to them individually.

Now, what would I like them to do? I Of course I would like them to go public, because it’s going to help educate the public, you know, but I can’t sit here and say they’re wrong for not. …

… What about young people? I know you did a PSA with the Hip-Hop [Summit] Youth Council [HHSYC] where you say the black community has to stop shucking and jiving. … Tell us about that and the message.

When you look up at black young people and teens, sex is higher than it’s ever been, and young people feel they’re superman and superwoman and that nothing can ever happen to them. So I felt it was necessary to get the word out to them that not only do we have to worry about teen pregnancy, because that’s also running rampant in our community unfortunately, and so many other diseases and viruses. HIV and AIDS is deadly.

They must educate themselves; they must have safe sex, that the safest sex is no sex. And then when you think about this type of information, make sure they consult their parents before they have sex. Make sure they talk to their priest, rabbi, pastor, somebody that can help them understand what can happen to them if they have sex and if they have unprotected sex and what’s out here.

I felt it was important to get the message out, because young people still look up to me, and so I wanted them to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

What about E.J.? What do you say to him?

I have been telling him you’ve got to be careful, and when you think about that he’s 19 now, and he wants to make his own decisions as young people always do when they get to 18 and think they know everything, and so I give him the information.

I have a daughter who is 16, Elisa. I just had the birds-and-bees talk. She didn’t like it coming from me, but I had to do it because I been there, so I know what can happen. Also my son Andre, who is 30.

So you have these conversations, because they are important, especially coming from me. I am living with this virus. I don’t want them to ever have it, so I have to tell them what happened so they can know what’s out there and what can happen to them if they do the same thing I did.

So young ladies, especially because of Elisa and you just had that conversation, you can’t tell by looking. How do you?

They have to understand, sometimes you’ve got to be blunt, you know. First of all, you’ve got to make the right decision, but if you make the decision to have sex, you’ve got to tell them, “We can’t do nothing without protection, and don’t even think about it,” and then you make him go to the store.

Trust me. A young man or a man, trust me, if he really wants to do it, he’ll find a way to the store, how to get there, and he’ll come back. I mean, really, it’s just that simple, and it’s important.

But girls are afraid to do that because they’ll get rejected.

They should be stronger than that, because trust me, the boy won’t go nowhere. They won’t go anywhere. They’re still going to like them because they’re still going to be pretty tomorrow, and they’re still going to be that nice young lady tomorrow, and they’re still going to be cool; they’re still going to be hip; they’re still going to be in, because you have to remember something about that young man. He liked you before he even had sex with you. It was something about you that attracted him to you, so that wasn’t the reason, because when he first saw you and he first — he’s on the phone with you nightly, and you guys didn’t [do] anything.

So just do the right thing, not only for yourself but for him, too, you know. So you are making good decisions for both people in that situation.

I wanted to ask you about our president. … I did see that you have a poster out there with him and Michelle. What should our leaders be doing?

… We in the HIV and AIDS fight always want more, more funding, ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program]. We always want more. We have to remember when President Bush, both father and son, it got cut; we didn’t get the funding.

But at least President Obama has named a great AIDS czar, and they are looking to do more, to educate more, to give us more funding, so it’s going to take time, because we also have to balance that with also understanding where the economy is, the wars. It’s a lot going on and a lot on his plate that some of the presidents didn’t have, and so I think that we still want more funding, we still want more hospices built and that we can also get free housing for the people who are living with HIV and AIDS, and if we can get more free medicine or at least the medicine [costs will] go down.

So those are the type of things we fight for and ask for. And then the last thing — this is not really a President Obama thing — but those who are living with it need to stop being discriminated against, and I think that’s the one thing we have dealt with too much, and people need to stop doing that. Whether it’s in the workplace, whether it’s at home, whether it’s at church, whether it’s in the schools, wherever, we need to stop that.

Expand on that a little bit, because it is happening everywhere. That’s what we’ve discovered. Stigma, discrimination — small and large acts of discrimination are the big problem.

… I think that hopefully the administration can help and crack down on people who are doing that. Corporations and individuals, store owners or whatever it is and whoever it is, and then, you know, AIDS Healthcare [Foundation] does a wonderful job. If you can’t afford your medicine, then they give it to you for free.

So we need more and more organizations like that, and more funding from the government to keep doors like that open who are taking care of people who can’t afford medicine to pay for their meds. I’ve been really fighting that. That’s been one of the battles, because it’s important that people can just concentrate on their status and not have to deal with all this discrimination that’s going on.

So now you’ve got to deal with this problem and your HIV and AIDS problem, and that’s sometimes too much to bear. And then for minorities, especially women, they’re trying to be a mother, they’re trying to hide their status away from people, so they drive outside the community to go see a doctor, and then they’re trying to meet their monthly bills. It’s a lot. It’s a burden on them. …

Let’s pretend I am one of these people, I just fired somebody who is HIV-positive. What are you going to say to me? Straighten me up.

First of all, I hope that somebody is there to give them a hug, number one. Number two, you’ve got to keep going; you’ve got to keep to keep fighting, and then make public what happened. You know, that employer, if you were discriminated against, fired in a wrong manner, you’ve got to go to city hall; you’ve got to tell people about this corporation that fired you just because of your status.

What do you say to the employer or the person who is discriminating? How do you straighten them out?

The virus don’t stop them from being a great employee; that’s number one. It has nothing to do with them whether they can deal with the work or workload or do their job. They’ve been doing it for years, and that’s why you got them there, and nothing’s going to change. You’ve still got an incredible employee who is still capable of doing a job and handling their workload. And I say to them they should educate themselves first.

Now, I have some of the [best] partners in the world. I just sold the Starbucks and the Lakers combined for over $100 million, and when you can do that, that means I did something right, right? And so these people can do some great things for you, so don’t let their status or their HIV, whether it’s HIV or AIDS, discourage you from [keeping] them. …

I think you should say: “I am going to help you. Not only are you going to keep your job, but you’re going to help educate all of us in this office about the disease.” And that’s what they should be doing. And that to me is a great boss, and then we’ll salute you as a great company and you as a great boss.

 

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