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

Magic Johnson spoke with FRONTLINE as part of our upcoming film on AIDS in Black America, coming in 2012. The film is made possible by support from The Ford Foundation, The M.A.C. AIDS FUND and the National Black Programming Consortium of CPB.

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:

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