The day “Magic” Johnson told his wife that he was living with HIV

Mara Ruiz
Mara Ruiz

In 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was one of the most popular players in the United States basketball league. At that time, at the age of 32 and at the peak of his career, he announced that he was leaving the courts because he had been diagnosed with HIV.

The impact of this revelation was enormous. Johnson’s nickname, “magic,” was not free, and he is still considered among the greatest players in basketball history today. In addition, barely ten years had passed since the announcement of the first AIDS cases, there was still no safe and effective treatment for HIV and, until then, the infection carried a great stigma because it was associated with socially rejected behaviors, such as sex work, sex between men and drug use.

“Magic” Johnson wanted to actively combat that stigma by announcing his status to the world, showing that anyone, of any sexual orientation and with any standard of living, could contract the infection.

But there is one more detail to this well-known story of the HIV pandemic, and that is that Johnson had just married, less than two months earlier, Earlitha Kelly, who was pregnant with their first child.

Critical situation

In her book Believing in Magic: My Love Story (published in English), Earlitha, better known by the nickname “Cookie”, recounted the difficult moments she faced when the man with whom she was raising a family announced that she had an infection, then devastating and deadly.

They had met at Michigan State University in 1977, but it wasn’t serious enough to him for him to think they’d ever get married. The former player has recognized that “he liked to have fun”, and when he began to play professionally with the Los Angeles Lakers team, money, fame and partying came into his life in a dizzying way.

The moment of the truth

According to the magazine POZ, specialized in HIV, one day “Magic” called his wife to tell her that he would come home early because he had something to tell her. She feared it was something serious, like an injury that would take him out of the game or that he had just thought it over and wanted to leave her. But nothing prepared her for what was really to come.

“Magic” came to see her, took her by the hand and led her to a sofa, where they both sat without having exchanged a word until then. “Cookie” held her breath, as she recounted in her book, published in 1996.

After he broke the news, they both hugged. He told her that she could leave if she wanted, but she decided to stay. He told her that they would “beat this together,” they knelt down and prayed. Moments later, “Magic” locked himself in a room to call all the women he had been sexually intimate with and could still contact.

Since “Cookie” was pregnant, she recalls waking up each morning in a panic, worried that she might also have the virus or worse, or that her baby would get sick and not survive. Fortunately, his test came back negative.

A new beginning

The HIV diagnosis was the beginning of a new life. “Cookie” narrates that he met Elizabeth Glaser, an HIV activist, who urged “Magic” to become a public face for the infection, which he accepted at the historic press conference on November 7, 1991.

The player had full physical capabilities to continue on the field, but at that time fear and misinformation weighed heavily. There was concern from some of his teammates, who were opposed to him continuing to play for fear of accidentally acquiring the virus.

Since then, “Magic” and “Cookie” have dedicated themselves to working at the foundation that bears his name, which supports not only the response to HIV, but also other charitable causes.

In 1996, “Magic” Johnson was one of the first people to receive the newly developed Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), a form of combination drugs that forever changed HIV, making it a chronic condition in place of a diagnosis of death.

Today, antiretroviral treatment is widely available. If you have an HIV diagnosis and have not started it, come to AHF Latin America and the Caribbean and we will help you. Locate our nearest office in your country and make an appointment now.