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Sunday, December 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Percy Allen

Magic Johnson endures; sadly, so does HIV

Seattle Times NBA reporter

Magic Johnson was going to die. He had HIV and he was going to die. That's what I thought. That's what everybody thought, but nobody said it.

For many in my generation, Nov. 7, 1991, was our MLK or JFK day. Just as I remember where I was when President Ronald Reagan was shot, and when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, I clearly remember the day when Magic told the world that he contracted the HIV virus.

He wore a dark suit and stood behind a podium when he should have been on the basketball court directing no-look passes, flashing his famous smile and guiding the Los Angeles Lakers back to the NBA Finals.

But all of that changed after his announcement.

"Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today. I do not have the AIDS disease, I plan on going on living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have, so you'll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers and the league for a while and going on with my life."

It was a death sentence. That's what my friends and I thought. But what did we know? We didn't know anything. Not about AIDS or HIV.

We knew actor Rock Hudson contracted the HIV virus and he died.

The year after Magic's news conference, tennis great Arthur Ashe made a similar stunning announcement and he died 10 months later.

So Magic had HIV. And he was going to die.

In an interview with GQ magazine, former Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy said: "When I asked about the likelihood of how long he was going to live, nobody said more than two or three years."

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Said Lakers owner Jerry Buss: "My feeling when he announced it was that he was saying, 'I'm about to die,' and that was so unacceptable and heavy to me."

Fifteen years later, Magic is still with us. And if the story ended there, it would be a happy ending. But there's more. So much more.

Magic, 47, is not only healthy, he's thriving. The five-time NBA champion is the father of three children, husband to wife Cookie and has earned significantly more money off the court as an entrepreneur — with a net worth of $800 million — than he did during his 12-year Hall of Fame career.

"I guess I now get to enjoy some of the other sides of living that I've missed. I will now become a spokesman for HIV."

True to his word 15 years ago, Magic joined President George H.W. Bush's National Commission on AIDS days after that news conference. Citing differences of opinion, however, he resigned 10 months later.

Because of his celebrity, he has been a vocal AIDS activist. But Magic's latest project is perhaps his most ambitious.

Last Friday on World AIDS Day, which commemorates the more than 25 million who have died because of the disease, the millions who are suffering from AIDS, living with HIV and those who are at risk, he launched a $60 million partnership with drug company Abbott Laboratories that aims to cut the AIDS rate among African-Americans by 50 percent in the next five years.

The "I Stand with Magic" venture will conduct testing drives in 10 to 13 cities each year as well as sponsor educational programs and advertising, financially support grass-roots advocacy programs and provide scholarships for doctors willing to staff HIV/AIDS programs in the black community.

After all these years, he gets it. It's not enough to be the face of HIV, but Magic has to embrace the role and the enormous responsibility it carries. We've always known that he carried the HIV virus, but he didn't raise awareness like many believed he would.

When Magic made his announcement, about one-third of the 200,000 full-blown AIDS cases in the United States were African-American, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Estimating the number of AIDS casualties in this country has always been difficult, but today health reports indicate that blacks account for more than half of the HIV cases and the Kaiser Family Foundation cites HIV as the leading cause of death for African-Americans 25 to 44 years of age.

That hits home because that's my demographic, and it makes me wonder how this has happened.

Weren't we listening when Magic urged us to practice safe sex and get tested for sexually transmitted diseases? Didn't we hear him when he said AIDS is not a homosexual problem?

Perhaps we've been fooled because he still looks healthy enough to collect a triple-double. Sadly, I wonder if the AIDS epidemic would be as severe in the black community if Magic had died.

My guess, probably so. He said it best 15 years ago.

"Sometimes you're a little na´ve and you think it could never happen to you. ... Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, or it's not going to happen to me.

"Here I am saying it can happen to everybody. Even me, Magic Johnson."

I took an HIV test on Friday because Magic said I should get tested.

More people should listen to him.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com. More columns at seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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