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New ‘Magic’ Johnson Docuseries Shows How HIV Diagnosis Changed His Life

Updated on September 28, 2022
Article written by
Ted Samson

For basketball fans, NBA All-Star legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson may be best known for his feats on the basketball court as a point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. For some members of the HIV community, Johnson has also been an inspirational pioneer in HIV advocacy, challenging widespread stigmas and misconceptions about the disease. His decision in 1991 to speak openly on live TV about his HIV-positive diagnosis was monumental. Misinformation regarding the human immunodeficiency virus was rampant at that time, including beliefs about who could contract it and how it was spread.

“I thank you MAGIC! I thank you for standing tall, and motivating many! God knows that you didn’t have to do it!” wrote one myHIVteam member.

The new docuseries “They Call Me Magic” focuses not only on the legendary basketball career of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, but also his HIV journey. The series is now streaming on Apple TV+. (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, Johnson has been the subject of several documentaries, including 2012’s “The Announcement.” More recently, Johnson’s personal and professional life have taken center court in the 2022 docuseries “They Call Me Magic,” streaming on Apple TV+.

“We’ve told my story from Lansing, Michigan; Michigan State winning the championship; to the Lakers winning five; to becoming a businessman,” Johnson said in a 2022 interview. “But also to the lows of my life — when I announced HIV, people thought it was a death sentence, including myself, and now I’m sitting here 30 years later.”

A Courageous Disclosure

The series focuses on Johnson’s myriad athletic accomplishments, such as leading the L.A. Lakers to five NBA championships. It also revisits that historic press conference on Nov. 7, 1991, during which he announced his HIV diagnosis and retirement from basketball.

“I just want to say that I’m going to miss playing,” he told the world. “And I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus because I want people — young people — to realize that they can practice safe sex. And you know, sometimes you’re a little naive about it, and you think it could never happen to you.”

He added, “I think sometimes we think only gay people can get it. … I am saying that it can happen to anybody — even me.”

Johnson has disclosed that he contracted HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex and had hundreds of partners prior to his HIV diagnosis.

Passing the Advocacy Torch

Johnson has credited AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser for inspiring him to disclose his diagnosis and to become an advocate for HIV awareness and education. Glaser gained notoriety for creating a foundation to drive pediatric HIV/AIDS research after contracting an HIV infection from a blood transfusion while giving birth to her daughter, Ariel. She unwittingly passed the disease to her daughter, through breastfeeding, and her unborn son, Jake, in utero.

In 2013, Johnson said in an interview that Glaser helped him and his family understand what everyday life would be like with HIV at a time when it wasn’t a treatable condition. He also said that Glaser saved his life.

“The one thing she did say was I was going to live for a long time. And the thing that she asked me to do was become the face of the disease,” he said. “She felt it was really important that I go public to help a lot of other people who were living the same lifestyle who didn’t know they had HIV and needed to get tested.

“And she was absolutely right,” said Johnson.

A Brief Return

Johnson’s disclosure didn’t erase the stigma surrounding HIV. He continued to face discrimination himself, including from some of his peers when he tried to return to playing basketball. He helped the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team — dubbed the “Dream Team” — win the gold. However, when he tried to return to the NBA, some players objected, expressing concern about contracting HIV from Johnson if he sustained an open wound injury.

“I just felt all the controversy, people saying different things, not people outside of the NBA but people within the NBA,” Johnson said in 2021. “I just felt that it was gonna be like this all year. … And so, it wasn’t worth it because I played basketball for two reasons, the love of the game and to have fun. I have fun doing it. I was seeing that the fun part wasn’t gonna be there. And it wasn’t worth playing, then, if I wasn’t going to have fun and enjoy it.”

Johnson went on to be a successful businessman and to raise a family with his wife, Cookie Johnson. He’s also been a prominent spokesperson for HIV awareness.

Taking On the President

Among Johnson’s advocacy efforts, he launched the Magic Johnson Foundation soon after disclosing his diagnosis. Initially, the foundation focused on fighting HIV but later expanded to other issues.

He also served on the National Commission on AIDS in 1992 — then went on to quit and criticize President George H.W. Bush for not taking steps to contain the disease. Johnson and the panel had put forth proposals including a national AIDS prevention plan and universal health care coverage.

Johnson wrote the following in his resignation letter to Bush: “Your kind words to me aside, your Administration has not done what it could and should to address a situation which, day by day, poses an increasing danger to the well-being of millions of Americans and which threatens to cast an even wider pall across our nation.”

Johnson was a keynote speaker at the 1999 United Nations World AIDS Day Conference, and has time and again spoken candidly about his personal experiences living with HIV.

“I had to really learn a lot about the disease, HIV as well as AIDS,” he said in an interview in 2021 with “CBS Mornings,” reflecting back on his original diagnosis. “I had to make sure that I was open-minded enough to ask a lot of questions, go get a lot of information from different people.”

A Blessing and a Curse

Since his diagnosis, Johnson has demonstrated to the public that emerging HIV treatments can be effective — and he has continued to spread awareness about the disease, advocate for people to practice safe sex, and urge people to get tested if they’re unsure of their HIV status.

In a 2016 interview with Ebony, he described himself as a “blessing and a curse of HIV”: “The blessing is that a lot of people went out and got tested after seeing me with it, so it raised the awareness level. Then the curse is because of the fact that I’m doing so well, now young people say, ‘I can be like Magic.’ The virus acts different in all of us and people have died in 22 years since I’ve had this. People are still dying and young people have to understand that.”

Johnson’s Legacy in the HIV Community

Johnson’s impact on the HIV community has been significant.

First, he helped to reduce stigma around the disease. By making the condition more visible and relatable, he spurred a shift in public attitude toward the condition — and people living with it. Stigma and misinformation surrounding HIV didn’t go away after Johnson made his historic announcement. Despite his fame and talent, he was effectively forced to leave the game of basketball — not because of his physical health but because of stigma.

People with HIV continue to face stigma today — an unfortunate reality members of myHIVteam discuss. “Disclosure is still hardest because of stigma,” one member shared.

Second, Johnson has been an inspiration for HIV advocacy through his actions. That includes his willingness to share his diagnosis and journey openly with the world for decades — as well as publicly challenging a sitting president for his administration's handling of the HIV epidemic.

Importantly, though, Johnson also showed us that a person doesn’t need to be a basketball superstar to inspire others and drive change. It was, after all, HIV/AIDS advocate Glaser who inspired Johnson to become an advocate himself before the world even knew he had HIV. Glaser died from complications of AIDS in 1994. In honor of her legacy of advocacy, the Pediatric AIDS Foundation changed its name to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

Members of myHIVteam have also noted that anyone can be an advocate — and every little bit helps. “Certainly when one is already notable, the messaging is louder overall — but each person that is able to advocate, either publicly or privately, is brave, courageous, and notable,” one member shared.

Finally, Johnson has empowered people living with HIV by showing the world what it means to live well with the condition, offering a road map and guidance for those who may feel scared, lost, or ashamed. “He gave people with HIV a public voice and a public face of ‘you can do this’ — as well as ‘be damn careful,’” commented one myHIVteam member.

Find Your Team

On myHIVteam, the social network for people living with HIV and their loved ones, more than 35,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with HIV.

What do you think about Magic Johnson’s legacy? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
    Ted Samson is a copy editor at MyHealthTeam. Learn more about him here.

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