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Then & Now: Magic Johnson

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Earvin "Magic" Johnson

SPECIAL REPORT

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AIDS (Disease)
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(CNN) -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson was famous for "schoolin'" the world's best basketball players before announcing his sudden retirement from the NBA in 1991, when he was diagnosed HIV positive. Today, he's still "schoolin'" people, only now it's on how to live with the deadly virus that sidelined his professional basketball career.

Johnson started his career as the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft, retired from the Los Angeles Lakers as the NBA's all-time assist king (10,141 -- a record since broken, though he is still ranked third). He is now chalking up assists of a different nature. Through his foundation and personal appearances, he is attempting to clear up misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS.

The most important of those is that it's "a gay person's disease."

"At the time [I was diagnosed], it was a white man's gay disease," said Johnson, now 44. "Now it's basically a black person's disease. As we sit here, the cases are over 60 to 65 percent. It's the number one killer of black women in New York, and we're talking about [ages] 18-35.

"Heterosexuals are getting HIV more than gay people," he continued. "We have to understand this is a heterosexual disease right now, and especially a minority disease. If we don't bring those numbers down, it's going to affect the minority community in a big way."

Johnson's life was altered when he was called home from a road trip after a routine physical, during which team doctors found that he was HIV positive. An NBA Hall of Famer and one of its 50 Greatest Players, Johnson says he was infected before marrying his wife, Cookie.

"Everyone thought I was going to die like a year later," Johnson said. "They didn't know. So I helped educate sports, and then the world, that a man living with HIV can play basketball. He's not going to give it to anybody by playing basketball."

Following a brief comeback in 1992 and a second one in 1995-96, Johnson has used his celebrity to raise money as well as public consciousness.

"We've been able to give away probably $5 to $10 million to great HIV and AIDS organizations," he said. "Last year alone I went to 35 different cities. I went to a church, I went to a high school, and I talked to health care providers all in one day in the 35 cities. I made sure I warned students who were probably having unprotected sex about what they were doing and what risks they were taking."

To make sure his message gets through, he pulls no punches when he visits schools.

"Young people want you to be real with them," he said. "If you tell them the real story, what happened, why it happened, then they're going to listen. So I just try to be direct."

For his efforts, the trustees of the Addiction Research and Treatment Corp. (ARTC) and the Urban Resource Institute (URI) gave Johnson the 2004 URI Humanitarian Service Award at a gala held at the United Nations.

Johnson was inspired to take action by activist Elizabeth Glaser, wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser, who played Detective Dave Starsky in the '70s hit drama Starsky and Hutch.

"She was dying of AIDS, and she said, 'You are going to be here a long time because we have some great drugs coming down the pipeline. The only thing I want you to do is make sure you go out and talk about HIV and AIDS all the time and help other people,'" he remembered.

Glaser's optimism proved accurate, as improved medicines have contributed to Johnson's condition.

"At that time [I was diagnosed HIV positive], we had only one [drug]: AZT," he said. "Now we have 22. The reason I am doing well is because of the drugs.

"I am following my doctor's program, and I am making sure I get exercise and a proper diet," he continued. "It's been mind over matter, too. I always felt I was going to beat HIV. I had to put that in my mind to live and breathe that every day."

Johnson still leads an active life, exercising every morning at 5:30, working until 8 or 9 every evening, and raising his three children with Cookie. He sees no end to his active, and activist, lifestyles.

"I will continue to talk about it for the rest of my life," said Johnson, who also tries to hammer home the benefits of getting tested and early detection. "I've gone to Congress to talk about funding for the ADAPT program for people living with HIV and AIDS. I've talked to the local and state government, and so I do a lot behind the scenes.

"I want to make sure that all people living with HIV -- but especially the minority community -- understand that this disease is not going anywhere."

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