part 2 of mark medina’s remarkable coverage of magic’s 20th anniversary of his HIV/AIDS diagnosis
Several times, Magic Johnson celebrated.
His news conference at Staples Center on Monday marked the 20th anniversary of his abrupt retirement from the NBA because he had tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. He presented a $1-million check for his self-named foundation. He took pride in speaking to more than 300 churches, high schools and colleges the last several years. Dr. David Ho and Lakers teammates universally lauded him as the model advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness because of his beaming personality and his consistent adherence to his exercise habits and medication.
The event felt like a gala, with an emcee introducing everyone on stage and music playing in the background. A who’s who of Lakers lore attended, including former teammates (James Worthy, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis), former coaches (Pat Riley, Mike Dunleavy and Phil Jackson), legends (Jerry West and Bill Sharman), team officials (Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak, Jeanie Buss and Linda Rambis), local officials and businessmen (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and AEG’s Tim Leiweke) and family (his wife, Cookie, and three children). The event validated Johnson’s saying 20 years ago he planned on “going on living for a long time.”
“It’s been an amazing 20 years,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we have another amazing [20 years] coming.”
Yet, it clearly showed why Johnson considered this moment to be “bittersweet.”
Several times, Johnson sounded emotional.
He cried when he thanked Lakers owner Jerry Buss for being a “father figure” and supporting him. Johnson sobbed again when Riley and his wife, Chris, approached the stage. Johnson became sentimental when he thanked several other Lakers by name as well as his wife, Cookie.
Several times, Johnson sounded unsatisfied.
Johnson said his foundation has raised $10 million for HIV/AIDS research and charities, tested 250,000 people, granted 150 minority scholarships and opened 18 technology centers and six clinics. But Dr. Ho provided some sobering statistics on why that pales to what he called “the worst plague in human history.”
In the last year, 25 million died of the illness and 30 million currently live with it. The U.S. experiences from 50,000 to 60,000 new cases per year. And 50% of those new infections occur in minority communities.
“Young people don’t want to listen to any message because they feel they know it all,” Johnson said. “They just have to keep drilling it in their heads that HIV is here and here to stay and you have to do a better job protecting yourself and your partner. Hopefully that message will get to them.”
Several times, Johnson relived his painful past.
He admitted the painful feeling in telling Cookie about his infidelities. He acknowledged feeling frustrated that NBA players, such as Karl Malone and Mark Price, publicly expressed health concerns about playing against Johnson. Though he said he recommended Isiah Thomas to become the Knicks president, Johnson acknowledged he has a distant relationship with the former Pistons star who spread rumors that Johnson was gay.
So, yes, it was a bittersweet day. But it remained clear to Johnson and his supporters that at least he proved healthy enough to speak 20 years later after shocking the world about his HIV diagnosis.
— Mark Medina
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