Magic Johnson Combats AIDS Misperceptions

Magic JohnsonCall it the Magic Paradox. Fifteen years ago, L.A. Laker legend Magic Johnson announced he had AIDS and would retire from basketball. Today, Johnson, 47, looks so healthy some may question whether AIDS is the menace it was made out to be.
That’s one of the myths Johnson says he will have to dispel if he’s going to succeed in perhaps his most ambitious venture of all, a $60 million partnership with the drug firm Abbott that aims to cut AIDS rates among African-Americans by 50% in the next five years.
“You can’t take that attitude that you’re going to be like Magic,” says Johnson, who will launch the I Stand with Magic partnership at a World AIDS Day briefing in Los Angeles on Friday.
“Since I announced 15 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people have died of HIV/AIDS,” he says. “There will be more people dying. The virus acts different in all of us. There’s no certainty that if you get the virus, you’re going to be OK.”
In fact, if you’re young and black, odds are that you won’t be, statistics show. For the past six years, HIV has been the leading cause of death for blacks 25 to 44 years of age, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
For whites, HIV is the fifth-leading cause of death; for Hispanics, HIV ranks fourth. Although blacks make up about 15% of the U.S. population, they account for about 50% of all people in the United States who live with HIV.
Blacks account for almost half of new HIV diagnoses, a tide that is rising. Two-thirds of new infections among women occur in black women. “We’ve got to drive these numbers down,” Johnson says.
Magic strategy
To reach that goal, Johnson and his I Stand with Magic partners will hold an HIV testing drive in 10 to 13 cities each year, sponsor educational programs and advertising, back grass-roots advocacy programs and provide scholarships for doctors willing to staff HIV/AIDS programs in the black community. Getting across the message isn’t going to be easy. Despite his best intentions, Johnson can be part of the problem.
“Just last night, I did a seminar with a group of high school girls,” Myisha Patterson, 25, national health coordinator for the NAACP, said Thursday. “I had them write down three things they knew about HIV/AIDS. Somebody wrote, ‘There’s a cure for AIDS. Look at Magic Johnson.’ “
Johnson says he’s anything but cured. He says he owes his well-being — and quite possibly his life — to the multidrug cocktail he takes everyday.
The drugs, GlaxoSmithKline’s Trizivir and Abbott’s Kaletra, are standard treatments used by many thousands of others infected with the AIDS virus, HIV.
Johnson can also credit luck and possibly the conditioning that comes from playing up to 100 heart-pounding NBA games a year.
The start of a crusade
The sad irony of the Magic Paradox is that Johnson has worked so hard to raise AIDS awareness among blacks. It had a huge impact on Nov. 7, 1991, when the man who led the Lakers to five NBA titles, called a news conference and said, “Because of the virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”
At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tallied about 200,000 full-blown AIDS cases in the United States, one-third of them among blacks. The CDC also reported that 57,879 people had tested positive for the AIDS virus at public clinics, 9,142 of them (16 percent) were heterosexual men and women with multiple sex partners.
Johnson vowed to fight the disease and to become a national spokesman on HIV. He urged young people to practice safe sex, and he pointed out that his plight illustrated beyond a doubt that HIV/AIDS wasn’t only a gay disease: “Here I am saying it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”
Johnson learned just how mortal he was Oct. 26, 1991.
A routine Associated Press story reported, “Without Magic Johnson, the Lakers lost their exhibition game to the Utah Jazz, 107-103, Friday night at the New Delta Center.” The Lakers had attributed his absence to an undisclosed illness.
Shocking discovery
Recalling the events in an interview with USA TODAY, Johnson says team doctor Michael Mellman had summoned him back to Los Angeles without disclosing the reason for the call.
When Johnson arrived in Mellman’s office, he got the shock of his life. “He begins to tell me, you know, I have HIV,” Johnson says. “I never, ever thought that was what he was calling me back for.”
Johnson had been tested as part of a routine examination for a life insurance policy.
He says the next two hours were among the toughest of his life. He worried about his wife, Cookie Kelly, who was two months pregnant, and Mellman couldn’t offer much reassurance.
“As I got home,” Johnson says, “I was just hoping and praying that she would stay with me. I think that was the main thing. … As I told her I was HIV-positive she, of course, began to cry and asked me what that meant for (her) and the baby, which I couldn’t tell her. But I told her I would understand if she wanted to leave me. You know, right at that time, she hit me so hard upside my head. And then she said, ‘Hey, we’re going to beat this together.’ “
Five days later, Cookie’s HIV test came back negative, Johnson says. “Then I started my own journey.”
‘The face of the disease’
Seeking guidance, the couple visited Elizabeth Glaser, the wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser and founder of the Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Glaser was infected with HIV in 1981 through a blood transfusion and unwittingly infected her children. She was dying, but she offered words of comfort and asked for something in return.
“She told me you have to become the face of the disease,” Johnson says.
His preseason bombshell made headlines worldwide. Phill Wilson, head of the Black AIDS Institute, was the AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles at the time. He says Johnson’s announcement shut down his switchboard. “It was the single most powerful event at the time to raise awareness about AIDS in black America,” Wilson says.
Kenny Smith, then of the rival Houston Rockets who now works with Johnson on TNT’s “Inside the NBA”, says, “Before then, people were ostracized, in my estimation, for having the disease. Magic was the person, because his name reached far beyond sports, to make (HIV) acceptable, more a disease than a mark of shame.”
The next three years were difficult ones. Johnson missed being on the court, and the side effects of AZT, the only drug available at the time, made it hard for him to exercise. He suffered “mood swings” as a result of the stresses in his life.
To honor his promise to Glaser, he unveiled the Magic Johnson Foundation, dedicated to AIDS-related research and outreach. He also agreed to join President George H.W. Bush’s National Commission on AIDS, but his tenure was short because he felt the commission was ineffective. He chose instead to focus his AIDS work through the foundation.
Beyond celebrity
This year, alarmed at the spread of AIDS in the black community, he approached officials at Abbott, because he wanted to attack AIDS in churches and neighborhoods and schools.
His effort coincides with a broader push, launched at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August, to draw black leadership in every community into the AIDS fight. “The story of AIDS in America is a story of failed leadership,” says Wilson, who is organizing that effort.
Longtime AIDS activists, such as Archbishop Carl Bean of Unity Fellowship Church in Los Angeles, say these leaders will have to take their AIDS war to the streets.
“Celebrity gets people’s attention for the moment,” he says. “What holds your attention is (what happens) where you live. If you’re dealing with people who are impoverished, who might drink a little too much or use drugs and who aren’t aware of what they’re doing, these are the people we have to reach. If we’re going to get to them, we have to get to people they’ll listen to.”
That’s what Johnson has in mind. “We (blacks) make up over 50% of all new cases,” he says. “We’ve got to change that. The only way we can do that is to really get on the ground.”
from USA Today

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