Magic Johnson Exclusive: ‘I Needed to Become the Face’ of HIV

Updated: Sep. 28, 2023

Still impressively active, basketball legend Magic Johnson reflects on 32 years of health advocacy and says he's particularly passionate to raise awareness about one respiratory virus that's been on the rise.

The year was 1991, the Red Ribbon had just become the new international symbol of AIDS awareness, and people around the world were losing their lives to AIDS in record numbers.

With that as the backdrop, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr., then 32, revealed he was HIV positive. Magic Johnson put a face on HIV and catalyzed a major shift in how many Americans perceived HIV and AIDs in the process.

Thirty-two years later, Magic Johnson reveals his undetectable viral load. The CDC explains that an HIV patient through taking proper medications may reach this point, meaning they “will not transmit HIV to your sex partner” and that “an undetectable viral load likely reduces the risk of HIV transmission through sharing needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment.” Magic Johnson says the progress that’s been made in HIV/AIDS research and medicine is a big part of why he is still using his voice to raise awareness.

Staying healthy remains his highest priority, which is why Johnson, 64, recently joined forces with GSK to introduce Sideline RSV, a new health education initiative aimed at educating older adults about the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV infection, which has risen in prevalence as a side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, and what Americans can do to prevent RSV infection.

“I’ve spent much of my life putting conversations about health where they belong, in center court,” Magic Johnson says. “I believe it’s so important for us to learn about our risk for RSV infection and how to help prevent it, so we can help sideline RSV.”

This week, Magic Johnson sat down in New York City with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest to discuss why he’s so passionate about the new RSV campaign and reflect on all that’s changed since he first announced his HIV diagnosis in 1991.

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest: Why did you decide to share your HIV diagnosis?

Magic Johnson: As American AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser lay dying from AIDS, she changed my life and my wife Cookie’s life. She told me I would be here for a long time, but I needed to become the face of this disease. I told her I would, and I have. I know she is looking down and I am sure she is proud of my efforts and all of the money I have raised for HIV and AIDS organizations.

Cookie Johnson and Magic Johnson speak onstage during the Elizabeth Taylor Ball To End Aids, September 2023Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Magic Johnson and his wife of 32 years, Cookie Johnson, at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball To End AIDS in September 2023.

The Healthy: How do you think your decision to be open about your HIV diagnosis helped move us forward as a society?

Magic Johnson: We have definitely made incredible strides and have moved forward. We only had one drug, AZT, or azidothymidine, in 1991 and now have around 40, so medicine has definitely gotten better. They said [these drugs] were going to prolong life, and wow!

We have been able to get information about HIV/AIDS out there in a faster and more efficient way, as well. For so long, there was so much misinformation especially in the Black and Brown communities. We don’t have to whisper when we talk about HIV and AIDS anymore. When you think about where we came from, everything is much better. The numbers seem to have gone down, but we’ve got to continue to fight and stop discrimination. A lot has changed, but we still have a long way to go. I think the main thing is to get a cure, but other than that I am really pleased by how far we have come.

The Healthy: You retired from basketball after your HIV diagnosis and then decided to come back, which was also pretty impactful in terms of reducing the stigma associated with HIV. Are you glad you did it?

Magic Johnson: I am happy I went back. Then-National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner David Stern and I both changed the world together. He allowed me to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game and on the Olympic Dream team. Those two events changed the world in terms of somebody living with this disease. [It showed] you are not going to catch it by playing against someone. You can compete and live a healthy life with HIV.

The Healthy: So why are you speaking out about RSV now?

Magic Johnson: Now that I am 64 myself, this RSV is something that is in my wheelhouse. Think about the fact that approximately 177,000 adults aged 65 and over are hospitalized from RSV and 14,000 will die from it. This is who I am. RSV can wipe you out, and you have got to educate yourself on it and make sure you talk to your doctor.

An RSV Vaccine Just Received FDA Approval for Older Adults

The Healthy: So how do you stay healthy during cold, flu, and RSV season?

Magic Johnson: We get every vaccination known to man. My doctor says you got to get the shingles and flu [shots] and anything new that comes out with COVID-19, and now RSV. I tell my doctor all the time that I am taking everything. I want to be here for a long time. Thank God, I am a person who listens to the experts.

The Healthy: How do you make the time to stay on top of all doctors’ appointments and vaccinations?

Magic Johnson: I’m a disciplined man. I am a January guy. January is my yearly physical, so I get everything I need done at the top of the year. I get my physical, my teeth cleaned at the dentist, and all the vaccinations. My world slows down in December and January so I like to get everything done. Then I am good for the year.

The Healthy: Now that you have retired from professional sports, how do you stay in shape?

Magic Johnson: I’ve got to be moving, I am a move guy. I used to do a lot of Tae Bo. I work out five days a week in the gym. I stretch and then work out with my trainer from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., and then I do cardio from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then I am in the office all day.

The Healthy: How do you stay motivated?

Magic Johnson: You’ve got to keep going. Besides physically feeling good, working out is good for me mentally. I’ve got a sweet tooth now, and my other guilty pleasure is too much Italian food because I love pasta—so I have to stay in the gym.

The Healthy: How do you stay so centered and focused?

Magic Johnson: I like alone time. I like quiet. I take 30 minutes of be-still time from 4:00 to 4:30 a.m. I have my tea and just sit quietly. I love the mornings because it is dark at that time and everything is still, and I can really think about my day. After that, I can get rolling.