Sports Illustrated Profiles Magic Johnson Nearly 10 Years After HIV AnnouncementSports Illustrated this week features its 25th cover story on Magic Johnson, "one of the best, and best-loved, athletes on earth," who tested positive for HIV nearly a decade ago. When he announced his HIV status and his decision to retire from professional basketball on Nov. 7, 1991, it was expected that he would die of an AIDS-related illness within a few years (McCallum, Sports Illustrated, 8/20). In a Nov. 18, 1991, SI article, Johnson wrote that the way he chose to deal with the virus "was to go public," by becoming "a spokesperson in the fight against HIV and an advocate for practicing safe sex by using condoms." He also said he "was going to beat the disease" (Johnson, SI, 11/18/91). In fact, rather than "wither[ing] away" with AIDS, Johnson has now become "the most public representative of a new subgroup in American society: 'long-term nonprogressors,' who are surviving with HIV, and in some cases, thriving," SI reports. He does not experience any AIDS-related symptoms such as weight loss, skin blotches, or low resistance to opportunistic infections, nor is his HIV viral load detectable or his T-cell count considered abnormal. Although the disease cannot be predicted with certainty, SI says, "It now seems likely that [Johnson] will not get" AIDS. His ability to fight the disease is attributed to his "world-class athletic body," as he continues an intense exercise schedule, and his "virtually unlimited personal funds [allow him] access to the best medical treatment in the world." But Eric Daar, an infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, noted, "The most important aspect of the Magic Johnson story is that he is not an anomaly." Following the introduction of antiretroviral drugs used in combinations, the AIDS-related U.S. death rate has dropped to 15,000 per year, compared to 40,000 10 years ago; currently, an estimated 900,000 Americans are living with HIV. Johnson, who turned 42 on Aug. 14, takes a daily drug combination of Combivir, which contains AZT and 3TC, and a protease inhibitor.
Success Off the Court
Although he is no longer a professional athlete, Johnson has developed many successful business ventures and partnerships. When asked if his HIV status and retirement from basketball motivated his business success, he said, "Most definitely. I got turned on when people said, 'It's all over for Magic.' I wanted to show them I wasn't going away." Johnson said he does not define himself as the "Former Basketball Player Who Has HIV," adding, "I look three to five years ahead, not 10 years behind." Since resigning from the first president George Bush's National Commission on AIDS eight months after he became a member in 1992, he has not joined any major national HIV/AIDS organizations, and while his Magic Johnson Foundation continues to be involved in HIV causes, it works equally as hard to send underprivileged children to college. Although he does not allow the virus to define him, as a former top athlete and a successful businessman, Johnson has become "the world's most prominent HIV-positive individual," SI says. But SI reports that Johnson's apparent health send mixed signals. As AIDS activist Phil Meyer points out, "There's a feeling that ... [AIDS] is not around, or 'If I get it, I'm not going to die from it. People are looking better than ever. Look at Magic Johnson.' ... People think AIDS is over" (SI, 8/20). The compilation of all 25 SI covers featuring Magic Johnson can be viewed online.
Does Johnson Foster False Sense of Security?
While Johnson's virility 10 years after his HIV diagnosis "is great news for one of Michigan's all-time favorite sons," it is "distressing for those on the front lines of the fight against AIDS," a Detroit Free Press editorial says, responding to the SI cover story on Johnson. According to the editorial, the former basketball star "may be offering a false sense of security to people at risk if they begin to believe that since Magic's managing it, I can, too. Why worry?" Although many of the 900,000 Americans with HIV are "living longer and better" lives due to antiretroviral drug therapy, there still is no cure for the disease and Johnson's asymptomatic longevity may be exceptional. The editorial calls him "an incredible physical specimen, possessed of legendary determination, and he has the means to pursue any steps to keep his HIV at bay." The editorial concludes, "The real lessons about HIV from Johnson's story are two: The virus is no respecter of fame and fortune, and though you may be able to live with it, life will never be the same" (Detroit Free Press, 8/21).