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Magic Johnson maintains optimism in HIV fight

November 7, 2011 |  8:26 am

Magic Johnson picked up the phone and heard an urgent and worried tone in the voice on the other end.

"You have to come home," the Lakers' team physician, Dr. Michael Melman, told him.

He was just about to play in an exhibition game in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz a week before the 1991-92 season would start. "Can I play the game, first?" Johnson asked.

"Nope," Melman said. "You have to come home right now."

"What is it?" Johnson said.

"I can't tell you over the phone," Melman said. "So you have to come home."

Johnson soon found out. He had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. Immediate thoughts flashed in Johnson's head.

Disbelief -- he wondered how he had contracted the disease and demanded up to three tests before reality settled in.

Anxiety -- how would he tell his wife, Cookie, of his infidelities and how would this affect both her health and their yet-to-be born son, E.J.?

Determination -- even if he couldn't truly digest the news, he vowed it wouldn't temper his infectious optimism.

"That's the one thing I did wrong," Johnson said at an appearance at Loyola Marymount University this summer. "I was devastated. You begin to say, how can this happen? I had to pick myself up off the ground because I didn't know what that meant for me."

Monday's date -- Nov. 7, 2011 -- means enough because it signifies the 20th anniversary of Johnson's  announcing his abrupt retirement from the Lakers because of the HIV virus. The milestone remains impressive for Johnson's success in battling the virus and for his foundation's role in educating the public about HIV. But as he holds a news conference at noon Monday inside Staples Center, it'll be clear how his determined optimism proved instrumental through this 20-year fight. 

Oh, there have been challenges along the way. Handling the stigma of how he contracted the disease, the scrutiny on his infidelities and having to end an accomplished NBA career with five league championships prematurely. But two things haven't wavered.

When Johnson delivered the devastating news 20 years ago, he vowed to become an AIDS spokesman. That happened. Nearly 1 million people in the United States have HIV/AIDS, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 33 million worldwide. Johnson's self-named foundation has been fighting to keep that number from growing. His foundation raises AIDS and HIV awareness through education, treatment and research, aiding 135 million people through community grants, education, scholarships, clinics, adding mobile testing units and partnering with Abbott Laboratories in efforts aimed at decreasing new HIV/AIDS infections in African American communities.

Johnson was probably the only person in the room in 1991 who believed his prediction that he would survive HIV. Yet, he will stand inside Staples Center on Monday sharing his story because he consistently took his medication, worked out and -- more importantly -- maintained his positive attitude.

"I never thought I was going to die," Johnson said. "I'm not that guy. I've been a competitor my whole life."


Magic Johnson wishes he hadn't retired so early

-- Mark Medina

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