Despite contracting the HIV virus, basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson has not only defied the odds but also forever changed the way people look at the disease.
Johnson still remembers the day in 1991 when he was told he had the virus.
"It's been 22 years that God has blessed me to be here. When I got a call, I was in Utah at an exhibition game and I was told I had to fly back to Los Angeles," said Johnson during remarks he made at Howard University on Feb. 7. "I was a young man in the prime of my career. We'd won championships all those years. I asked 'how could this happen to me?'"
"I was devastated, frustrated, worried because my wife was pregnant. I went back-and-forth wondering how to tell my wife ..."
Johnson, the 53-year-old business mogul, said he was preparing himself if his wife, Cookie, decided to bail on the marriage.
"Great partners always know when something is wrong," said Johnson, who was at the Northwest campus to mark the opening of the Magic Johnson Sub Connection at the Howard University Hospital cafeteria. "She was crying, I was helpless, so was she. I told her I'd understand if she wanted to leave. She hit me so hard when I said that. We dropped on our knees and prayed. It was a blessing."
"It took us a week or two to hear that she and the baby were OK. Now I could take this challenge on and live the next 22 years."
Johnson, a father of three, created a sensation during his visit with hospital staff, faculty and school employees craning their necks to see him, snapping pictures on their phones and inveigling him to pose for pictures. The crowd of hospital staff, physicians, medical residents, business students and other guests in the Dr. H. Lesley Howard Auditorium bubbled with excitement. The affair resembled a love fest with the audience hanging on his every word, engaging in spirited bouts of call-and-response, with individuals finishing his sentences and people's obvious admiration present on their faces.
Johnson didn't spend any time at the lectern. He grabbed a microphone and strode up and down the aisles as he discussed his work on AIDS awareness, his transition from sports to business and expounded on different elements of his multimillion dollar empire.
Johnson's visit coincided with Black AIDS Day and he lamented about the casualness that pervades the thinking of young people who believe they won't fall victim to the disease. When Johnson made his announcement that he was HIV positive, such news amounted to a death sentence. His vow to best the disease was likely looked on as the noble sentiments of a man who was dead and didn't know it. But in the years since, Johnson has defied the odds.
"No, I'm not on any magical drugs. That sure would be magic," he said with his trademark million-dollar smile. "I'm on three drugs and the cocktail has worked to perfection with me. The only difference is that I take my meds and I'm cool with my status."
"I walk the same way – you see me," said Johnson as he squared his shoulders and eased effortlessly down the aisle to the front of the auditorium. "My doctor told me to take my meds, have a positive attitude and exercise. I want to see my daughter walk down the aisle and help my grown sons."
Johnson, the first African American to become a major owner of a Major League Baseball franchise – the LA Dodgers – said he's committed to helping educate everyone he meets how to avoid HIV and AIDS and if they have it, how to live as full and enriching a life as his.
"Get tested," he said. "There's misinformation in our community. I had a couple of years of dealing with that. I had to educate people on the fly and I was being educated on the fly too. That was tough ... my No. 1 thing is to educate my people."
Johnson cited recent statistics that two years ago, people of color made up 55 percent of new cases. Though that figure has dipped to 44 percent, Johnson said much still needs to be done.
"People 24 to 30 make up the bulk of cases," he explained. "They need the right information. You have to say, 'whoa, it can happen to me.'"
He said AIDS advocates are doing a better job of getting accurate information out.
"For me, it's a great situation being the face of AIDS ... it's been a great journey for me."
But Johnson, winner of five NBA championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers, has also become the face of entrepreneurial success. Magic Johnson Enterprises offers products and services that focus primarily on ethnically diverse and underserved urban communities. His business partnerships include Canyon Johnson, a $1 billion dollar real estate fund; Yucaipa Johnson, a $500-million-dollar private equity fund; SodexoMagic; Starbucks; and Inner City Broadcasting Corporation. He also owns a multi-cultural media company that controls Soul Train, Vibe and Uptown magazines.
The company has more than 50,000 employees in 35 states and 135 cities, and has helped revitalize underserved and inner-city communities that are often overlooked by other companies.
What he understood that other companies didn't, Johnson said, is the amount of disposable income in urban areas. He used his discussions with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to highlight that reality.
"I laid it out to him. We like coffee too but we have to go too far to get it. We have loyal customers and disposal income."
He was accompanied by Sodexo officials who are his partners in the Howard University cafeteria project. Johnson encouraged young people in the audience to follow their dreams as he did, have a plan, make sure they're prepared, "and when you get the opportunity, don't blow it."
"I had money I'd earned and saved," Johnson said. "I wanted to invest in my community." His first investment was a Pepsi distributorship with [Black Enterprise founder] Earl Graves in Cheverly, Md.
That was followed by the Magic Johnson theaters, Starbucks and other building blocks of his empire.
"When you believe in yourself, you've done your research and lined [everything] up, [and] then you can go out and be bold," he said with a laugh. "... I love what I do, sending minorities out to work ... I try to make wise decisions that not only affect me but my people too."