Photo by Jason LewisBy Jason LewisSentinel Sports Editor
Earvin “Magic” Johnson stood tall on the Staples Center floor on Mon., Nov. 7 — just like he did 20 years ago to the day when he bravely announced that he had contracted the HIV virus. Johnson could have hidden from the public eye. He could have abruptly retired and faded off into the sunset without a word of the disease. But he decided to let all of us into his life at a time when he was the most vulnerable. He let us experience what many people thought would be a public death. Johnson approached the podium on the Staples Center floor, took a deep breath and said, “God is so good. Here I am … 20 years later. Wow, what a blessing!”If those words were written in a script 20 years ago, most people would not believe that Johnson would be the one saying them. But he has fought the good fight against HIV. He put a face to a disease that nobody wanted to. His efforts not only prolonged his life, but also they have prolonged the lives of countless other people. Many people have said that Johnson has survived because he can afford to buy the best drugs; but his physician, Dr. David Ho, says otherwise.“Our Hall of Famer here is now the symbol of treatment success,” Dr. Ho said. “What he gets in terms of his therapy is typical of what most American patients receive. So he is not the exception — he is the rule. He symbolizes hope because of his status.”Even with the advances in HIV treatment, Dr. Ho still points out that there is no cure, that 25 million people have already died from it, that 30 million people live with it today, and that 7,000 people are infected with the virus on a daily basis. Dr. Ho said that HIV is the worst plague in human history.This disease has hit all races, all lifestyles — heterosexuals and homosexuals — but it has hit the African American and Latino communities the hardest. A 2006 study showed that for every 100,000 people, 115.7 Black men and 55.7 Black women will contract HIV. For Latino men, it is 43.1, and for Latino women, it is 14.4. For White men, it is only 19.6, and for White women, it is only 3.8.While African Americans represent approximately 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for almost half of the people living with HIV in the U.S. An analysis by the Black AIDS Institute found that if Black America were its own country, it would rank 16th in the world in the number of people with HIV, ahead of Ethiopia, Botswana and Haiti. The rate of new HIV infections for Black men is about six times as high as the rate among White men. Black women are far more affected by HIV than women of other races. The rate of new HIV infections for Black women is nearly 15 times as high as that of White women.Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 213,000 Blacks with AIDS have died and, according to the most recent published data, AIDS is the third leading cause of death among Black women aged 25-34 and 35-44 and among Black men aged 35-44.African American adults are not the only group that is contracting this disease at a high rate. Of the 25,000 infections estimated to occur each year among African Americans, more than one-third (38 percent) are among young people aged 13 to 29.Many African American youths are diagnosed late in the course of infection, when it may be too late to fully benefit from life-prolonging treatment. Johnson’s press conference at Staples Center was not as much a celebration of his 20 years of beating the disease as it was a way to bring more awareness to it. As a 20-year survivor, he brings people hope and he educates people about the disease. “My main goal now is to bring the numbers down in the Black and Brown communities,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do that.”Johnson is making a difference by being a leader, just like he was on the court, where he led the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships. “I’ve always been a leader my whole life,” Johnson said. “I’ve always led. I don’t know how to do anything else. But I never thought that I would have to lead in the HIV and AIDS community and be the face of a disease that is deadly and can kill somebody. “When God said, ‘This is how you’re going to lead today,’ I took it and I’m happy that I’ll be the face of this disease. The only problem is, I’ll be happier if the numbers in the Black and Brown community goes down.”Johnson is not only the spokesman for this disease, but his foundation has empowered the community for 20 years. The Magic Johnson Foundation has donated over $10 million to organizations implementing grassroots programming in order to combat HIV; has tested over 40,000 people in the last 10 years; has served over 245,000 individuals through its Community Empowerment Centers; has given over $3.2 million dollars in scholarship support to youths; has provided over 1,500 youth and young adults with GEDs and improved academic performance of over 6,000 youths; and has hosted over 45,000 youths and distributed over 300,000 toys since 1994 through the Magic Johnson Foundation Annual Holiday Party. As much work as Johnson has done in the fight against HIV, he realizes that there is still a long road ahead of us to conquering the disease. “This is a bittersweet day,” Johnson said. “Yes, I’m living. But people are still, even today as we speak, getting the virus, so we must change the mindset and we must do a better job of educating those who live in urban areas — in both Latino and African American areas.”Johnson has been able to stand tall through all of this and touch many lives because of the support that he has received at home.“It takes a family to support somebody who has HIV,” Johnson said. “Without a support system, I knew that I would not be here 20 years from now. The one person who stood by my side, through thick and thin, has been my incredible, beautiful wife. When I think about the time when I had to tell her 20 years ago … It was devastating for both of us. I told her that she could leave if she wanted to because I understand that this is tough for her. And right when I said that she hit me so hard, and she said that we’re going to beat this together, and we’re going to pray on it right now.”For more information about the Magic Johnson Foundation, visit www.magicjohnson.com.
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