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Magic Johnson Brings AIDS Message to Howard

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/13/2013, 10:55 a.m.

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."