Magic Johnson: “I’m Happy that it was me who was the person who got HIV in the sports world.”

This week marked the 20th anniversary of when Magic Johnson found out he had been diagnosed as HIV positive and went public with the news. His retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers accompanied the announcement. I remember watching the coverage at the time, but having absolutely no idea what it meant. It’s probably with that sentiment in mind that Johnson comes right out in the following interview to say that he’s happy that he was the one put in that situation. Johnson never felt bad for himself, but instead took the news and decided to be a pioneer, making it okay for society to discuss the disease and learn more about it. Magic Johnson joined Dan LeBatard on his television show and LeBatard replayed it on 790 The Ticket in Miami discussing how he got the news, how he decided to go public with it, what it was like to tell his wife the news, why he was glad he was the one that was diagnosed, if he ever felt angry with anyone, lost friendships with players like Isiah Thomas, his time with the Dream Team, the friendly rivalry with Michael Jordan and how he remains absurdly competitive.

Tell us the story of when you first learned that you were HIV positive:

“We were in Utah, the Lakers, to play an exhibition game against the Jazz and I get a phone call to wake me up out of nap that says … you’ve got to come back to Los Angeles. I said, ‘Can I play the game first?’ He said, ‘No, get on a flight right away.’ So I flew back to L.A. and he began to tell me that I had HIV. It was just devastating, man. It almost took my breath away from me. I was in disbelief, even for hours. … Then I had to drive home to tell my wife, Cookie, that I have HIV, and she was pregnant with our son E.J. at that time and she began to cry. She was devastated. Later on we found out she was OK and our baby, E.J., was OK.”

On making the decision to announce the illness publicly:

“I decided t0 [go public and retire]. Go public because I wanted to help people and save peoples’ lives. And then I decided to retire because I wanted to be here 20 years later because I knew that there was going to be a lot of stress on me to return to the NBA.”

What was the flight back to L.A. like when you don’t know why you’re going back?:

“The flight was scary because I’m going through my mind, nothing like HIV, I’m just going through my mind, ‘What happened?’ … You’re trying to think of everything. But never, never in my wildest dreams did I think about HIV.”

On why telling his wife was even harder than hearing the news himself:

“That was harder. The drive home was not great at all because I was going through every scenario how I was going to tell her. I was practicing my speech. And when I got home and opened the door, she was already standing there and all that went out the window. All that practice, I couldn’t even begin to tell her. It was very difficult. And when I finally got the words out, she just cried. I told her, ‘I would understand if you wanted to leave me.’ As soon as I said ‘leave,’ she smacked me and hit me so hard like a Mike Tyson right cross and she said, ‘We’re going to beat this together.’ I think that was the greatest moment of all of this.”

Is some part of you grateful that you are HIV positive?:

“I’m happy that it was me who got this news, who was the person who got HIV in terms of in the sports world, that could change the mindset of people about HIV and AIDS. Before I announced, you had to whisper about HIV and AIDS. Now, after I announced, you could talk openly about it. They had a person who could handle the backlash or the bad publicity or corporations dropping him. I handled all of that. I handled the backlash or the players who said they didn’t want to play against me, in Karl Malone and Mark Price. And I decided not to be angry at them, but to educate them … and all the other sports leagues and the world.”

Were you ever angry at anybody?:

“I was upset, but I wasn’t angry. I think that, sometimes, you can have a positive mindset, even out of something that is devastating as someone says they don’t want to play against you.”

Is there one friendship that you lost in all of this that hurt you the most?:

“I think you’re trying to get me to say Isiah [Thomas] and I. Yeah, that hurt. It hurt him and hurt me, and that’s too bad. At the same time, I don’t wish anything bad on Isiah. … I still have a good feeling in my heart for Isiah and I will always have that.”

There’s a story about you on the Dream Team and going one-on-one in practice with Michael Jordan. Put us there:

“I always challenged Michael every day. Sometimes I would win and most of the time, he would win. … I wanted to push him and he wanted to push me. We just went at each other every single day and it actually helped all the other guys to see Michael and Magic going at each other. I also played cards with him every single night til 5 or 6 in the morning. We just had so much fun and I got to know a special friend.”

On the Dream Team:

“The Olympics was great because we crushed everybody in the game by an average of I think it was 44 points, 42 points. We were the only Dream Team. There’s never been another Dream Team. They said the Eagles. No. They said the Miami Heat. No, not yet. So, we’re the only Dream Team that’s won a championship or a gold medal.”

In that rivalry with Jordan, did he call you an old man?:

“Yes, he was calling me an old man. And I had to show him that the old man still had game. I had to show up for all the old guys. It was funny. I’ll tell you this story. … We’re in the restaurant and Larry [Bird] and I are sitting there talking and enters Michael Jordan and he sits down and Larry and I are going back, telling stories with each other. … Michael says, ‘I just want to tell you guys: Really, in college, you guys were the two guys I looked up to. … But I’m just here to tell both of you there’s a new sheriff in town and that’s me.’”

Give us an example of how you still are ultra-competitive:

“I play my daughter, who’s 16, one-on-one. We’ll play to 10. I let her get to nine and then I’ve got to crush her, I’ve got to beat her. … Cookie says, ‘You can let your daughter win.’ No, I can’t let anybody win. I’ve gotta crush her. I don’t care who I’m playing against. My grandkids, right now, three and the other one’s eight or nine months. If I play them one-on-one, I’m going to crush them, too.”

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