(NEW YORK) — Twenty-one years after announcing his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers because of HIV, Earvin “Magic” Johnson is a symbol of hope for more than a million Americans living with the once-deadly virus.
The basketball star’s Nov. 7, 1991, revelation shocked the nation at a time when many people thought HIV was an infection for “other people,” like gay men.
“Here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson,” he said at a packed news conference at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. “I just want to say that I’m going to miss playing, and I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus.”
Now 53, Johnson has kept his promise through a foundation in his name that funds HIV education and prevention programs in some of the country’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
“There is not a better feeling than to touch somebody’s life, than to impact it,” he said in a statement to ABC News last week. “Not a better feeling in the world.”
Johnson was diagnosed with HIV after having medical tests for a life insurance policy. He said he acquired the virus through unprotected sex with multiple women, and hoped to encourage other people to be more careful.
“That’s what I want to preach,” he said after his diagnosis. “I want them to understand that safe sex is the way to go.”
Johnson’s wife, Cookie, and their son are HIV-negative.
Johnson’s announcement, which came at the peak of his NBA fame, coincided with a dramatic drop in HIV infections nationwide, from more than 80,000 new cases per year to about 50,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the infection rate has since leveled off, a trend some attribute to complacence.
“Some people feel that because [Johnson] has lived on, they can have certain behaviors and live on, too,” said Amelia Williamson, president of the Beverly Hills-based Magic Johnson Foundation. “But his message is, ‘Follow my lead. Don’t make same mistakes I made.'”
Indeed, HIV treatments, the product of years of research, can help people with HIV live long lives without developing AIDS. But the drugs come at a cost.
“HIV is not a death sentence, but it’s a life sentence,” said Hydeia Broadbent, 28, who was born HIV-positive to an intravenous drug user. “You’ll be taking pills forever, going to the doctor and fighting for insurance forever.”
Broadbent met Johnson at a televised AIDS awareness event when she was 7 years old. When he asked what she wanted people to know about HIV, she replied through tiny sobs, “I want people to know that we’re just normal people.”
Now an HIV and AIDS activist herself, Broadbent recognizes the impact of Johnson’s bold admission and his mission to raise awareness.
“There aren’t really any other celebrities that have come forward and spoken out about having HIV,” she said. “And he’s a prime example of how this can happen to anyone. HIV doesn’t discriminate based on how much money you have and whether you’re straight or gay. It can happen if you’re not safe.”
After she was diagnosed with HIV at age 3, Broadbent’s adoptive parents enrolled her in clinical trials for experimental HIV drugs, a move she said saved her life.
“They basically signed me up to be a human guinea pig,” she said, adding that many of her friends died from AIDS in the 1990s. “By the grace of God, I’m still here.”
Despite advances in HIV testing and treatments, AIDS still kills nearly 18,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC. Part of the problem is that one in five people living with HIV is unaware, according to the Magic Johnson Foundation.
That’s why Nov. 7 is “Point Forward Day,” an awareness event named after Johnson’s role as both point guard and forward with the L.A. Lakers created to educate people about HIV and encourage them to get tested so they can get treated.
“It’s about finding out early, but it’s also about education, because there are still so many myths out there,” the foundation’s Williamson said. “HIV doesn’t have to happen to you when you make the right decisions and practice safe sex.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio