To Curb the Trend, Magic Tells His Story
'In Real Life, I'm Not Supposed to Be Here'

Washington Post | October 13, 2006; Page B03
By Robert E. Pierre

On the basketball court, he was Magic, dribbling past defenders, dishing no-look passes and tossing in three-pointers from beyond the arc.

But yesterday Earvin Johnson Jr. came to the District as a man living with a disease and a mission, testifying before audiences hushed by the power of his grim yet uplifting tale. At a high school and a Baptist church, Johnson recounted how his charmed basketball career ended abruptly in 1991 after a routine blood test revealed that he has HIV.

He quit basketball and was shunned by players who feared they could contract the virus simply by touching him. He stopped counting those who predicted that he would be dead in a year. Not a day goes by when he does not think about how sleeping around changed his life. Johnson said his fame made him the "face of the disease," a mantle that he has embraced and run with.

"I'm here so that what happened to me will not happen to you," he told an audience of feisty high schoolers, some giving his words rapt attention. "I had your same mindset, your same mentality. But HIV is running through our community in a big way. And sex among teenagers is up."

Johnson's visit to Washington is part of a 10-city tour focused on HIV/AIDS among African Americans, and it comes amid a District campaign urging residents ages 14 to 84 to get tested. In the first three months of the campaign, nearly 3 percent of the more than 7,000 people tested positive -- more than double the national rate.

The number of new infections -- 40,000 a year -- has not changed since 1990. But African Americans have plenty of reasons to be alarmed, since they account for half of all new infections despite representing only 13 percent of the population.

Fifteen years after learning he had the disease, Johnson, now 47, appears as vigorous and spry as ever. He is accustomed to questions about whether he has been cured and whether getting the virus really was that bad, since he looks so healthy. But Johnson, who works out daily, said no one should be fooled by his appearance.

"The only thing that saved my life was early detection and taking my medicine," he said yesterday in an interview. "In those 15 years, I tell them that a lot of people have died.

"In real life," he added, "I'm not supposed to be here."

But his talk is not all downbeat. Johnson said he grew up poor in a large family, like many of the students in the audience have. And with six sisters and three brothers, he often wore hand-me-downs that did not fit.

"We were very poor," he told the students. "But I had goals and dreams."

He made millions playing basketball, and now the entrepreneur owns a string of theaters bearing his name and 103 Starbucks coffee shops. "I got my education," he said. "The only thing that's going to help us is if you have a good education."

Some of the admonitions were brushed aside by youngsters who fidgeted in their seats and looked at their watches, but others said they were listening.

Johnson is among those who contend that many in the black community are afraid to stop pretending that the issue will magically disappear or that the disease is more predominant -- as it once was -- among gay, white men.

"Many responses to the issue of HIV/AIDS come as the result of abject ignorance of the disease," said the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., pastor of the 6,000-member Metropolitan Baptist Church near Logan Circle. "There are people who believe that by drawing away, withholding contact, that they are insulating themselves against any possibility of contracting the disease. But that's not the case. We have to have a serious process of education for the general public and for the affected public."

And that is where people like Johnson come in. At Anacostia High School, the auditorium broke out in bedlam as Johnson entered the room. When he initially retired from basketball, most of the Anacostia students were in diapers, and some were not even born. But when Johnson asked how many had visited his theater in Prince George's County, nearly every hand went up.

Later, a few lucky students were given Lakers jerseys bearing Johnson's name. One who got a jersey was Greg Baldwin, 17, a shooting guard on the school's varsity basketball team. He was moved by the event and Johnson's honesty.

"I haven't got tested," he said. "It makes me want to."

The audience at Metropolitan was slightly more subdued and older. Among the hundreds that filled the pews were people who had contracted the virus from intravenous drug use. Gwen Taylor, 50, of Baltimore was among a group of former drug users from Baltimore who were bused in for the event.

She was diagnosed HIV positive while in detox in the early 1990s. But Taylor said she kept using drugs until three years ago. Now, she takes her medicine every day, and she says that she feels and looks better than she has in years.

"I take suggestions now," she said. "I didn't back then."

Johnson's 10-city tour is part of a partnership with Abbott Laboratories Inc., the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the medication Johnson takes, to address health disparities in minority communities.

At Metropolitan, the company made a direct appeal for people to choose their drug, Kaletra, over others that are available.

"If you haven't had it, you're missing a treat," said Willis Steele, an Abbott representative. "They're just dynamite."

But Johnson's appeal at both venues was less about the drug and more about changing behaviors -- including promiscuity and drug use.

"If we've got bad habits," he said, "we've got to stop them. We have got to worry about how we're going to stay here for a long time."

For Johnson, it's 47 years and counting.