This is a story that ran in the Sunday print edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution today:
When basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had HIV on Nov. 7, 1991, he shocked not only sports fans, but the entire nation.
Johnson, who blamed unprotected sex, appeared to be a man with a grim future. “Dead man walking,” said fellow NBA star Karl Malone in a recent ESPN special about the announcement.
But two decades later, Johnson is thriving. At 52, he’s a successful businessman with a broad array of investments, from real estate (including holdings in Atlanta), to food services and sports, notably ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers with former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten. His latest venture is based in Atlanta: a cable TV network called Aspire, which launched last month.
And he remains the most prominent face of HIV/AIDS, a role he has embraced with grace and honor.
“A lot of people really didn’t think I’d be here today,” Johnson said in a recent interview. “But here I am. We’ve been able to educate the world about this disease.”
Johnson is a robust symbol of how far the medical community has come grappling with HIV/AIDS, which has gone from a virtual death sentence to a manageable disease.
He believes his advocacy has helped reduce discrimination against people with HIV as well: “We’ve come a long way. We can now talk openly about HIV.”
Improved treatment options starting in 1996 greatly reduced the death rate, allowing Johnson and millions of others to live relatively normal lives. He said his medical treatment has gotten easier during the years. Early on, he had to take a raft of drugs three times daily. Now, it’s only once a day.
“The meds have done their job. I’m doing my part by staying in shape.”
Indeed, while he looks bulkier than during his prime on the court with the Los Angeles Lakers, he is packed with muscle, not fat. He works out two hours every day.
“I love Tai Bo,” Johnson said, referencing the aerobic exercise routine that combines boxing, martial arts and dance. “I like to sweat a lot. I also lift weights.”
What now concerns him most about HIV and AIDS is the lack of public urgency on the subject. He said it’s easy to forget there’s no vaccine to cure HIV. It’s still a disease that requires expensive drug treatments with potentially major side effects. (Johnson himself is fortunate those side effects don’t impact him to any significant degree.)
“We’ve taken a step back. There’s not as much great work going on. I have to fight to keep this on the radar.”
In the United States, about 1.1 million people have HIV or full-blown AIDS, and 50,000 people are infected each year, a number that has not changed much in recent years, according to estimates by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 17,000 Americans die each year from the disease.
Johnson said ignorance, especially among younger people, allows HIV to spread. He encourages people to get tested, though they often don’t bother to get the results. “It’s a major problem in the South.”
He still carves out significant time to make appearances at hospitals and fundraisers, giving talks at countless schools, health fairs and churches.
“I’m never going to stop. This is my life.”
But Johnson’s life is not just his disease — not even close.
He and his wife Cookie have been married for 20 years, with two sons and an adopted daughter. He spent six years as an NBA analyst for Turner Broadcasting. He’s purchased and sold a piece of the Lakers, 105 Starbucks locations and a chain of Magic Johnson Theatres, including a location at the old Greenbriar Mall in Southwest Atlanta. He owns two Atlanta condo buildings — 101 Midtown and Plaza Midtown — and has business alliances with Best Buy (marketing), Aetna (health awareness) and T.G.I. Fridays (ownership), to name a few.
He also has media holdings, such as radio stations, Vibe magazine and the “Soul Train” brand.
Not everything he does turns to, well, magic. For instance, his stint as a rookie talk show host in 1998 lasted just eight weeks.
But his name carries cache, especially as he starts a new cable TV network, dubbed Aspire and aimed at an African-American audience. The crowded competitive landscape includes BET, Centric, TV One and Atlanta-based Bounce TV. Nonetheless, he was able to convince Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, Nationwide Insurance, L’Oreal, Wal-Mart and Chrysler to be exclusive launch partners.
The Aspire network aims to provide uplifting, family-friendly programming. (Early programming includes a series of independent black documentaries and films and classic episodes of “Soul Train” and “The Flip Wilson Show.”) About 7 million households can view it now, including Comcast customers in Atlanta on Channel 188.
“He’s a reflection of Aspire,” said Paul Butler, general manager of the fledgling network, which is moving from East Point to College Park later this month. “He has created opportunities for the African-American community. He has excelled in different fields.
“He embodies the breadth of who we as individuals can be.”
Johnson, a believer in partnerships, linked up with local cable network GMC (formerly Gospel Music Channel), which provides operational support for Aspire, including sales, marketing and programming.
“If I didn’t partner with GMC, I wouldn’t be in the business,” Johnson said. “We needed someone with some expertise. I thought it was a natural fit.”
The name of Johnson’s network, he added, is meant to reflect the positivity he hopes will emanate from the programming.
Charles Humbard, president and CEO of GMC, said Johnson’s combination of charm and business smarts is a wonder to watch. When Johnson recently visited GMC’s headquarters in East Point, he spent 90 minutes greeting every single employee, asking them personal questions and happily having his picture taken.
“He always has time for the regular guy,” Humbard said. “It was supposed to be a five-minute tour. Everyone was so fired up.”
With Aspire, Johnson would consider being back in front of the camera — but not as a late-night talk show host.
“I may do a show interviewing celebrities,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “Or a business show.
“We haven’t planned it yet, but African-Americans want to know how to build wealth. They want to know how to start a business or grow one. Home ownership. Having good credit. I think I’m going to have to go on and teach them that sort of thing.”
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk