Twenty-one years after announcing his retirementfrom the Los Angeles Lakers because of HIV, Earvin "Magic" Johnson is asymbol of hope for more than a million Americans living with the once-deadly virus.
The basketball star's Nov. 7, 1991, revelation shocked the nation at atime when many people thought HIV was an infection for "other people,"like gay men.
"Here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, MagicJohnson," he said at a packed news conference at the Forum in Inglewood,Calif. "I just want to say that I'm going to miss playing, and I willnow become a spokesman for the HIV virus."
Now 53, Johnson has kept his promise through a foundation in his name that funds HIV education and prevention programs in some of the country's most vulnerable neighborhoods.
"There is not a better feeling than to touch somebody's life, than toimpact it," he said in a statement to ABC News last week. "Not a betterfeeling in the world."
Johnson was diagnosed with HIV after having medical tests for a lifeinsurance policy. He said he acquired the virus through unprotected sexwith multiple women, and hoped to encourage other people to be morecareful.
"That's what I want to preach," he said after his diagnosis. "I want them to understand that safe sex is the way to go."
Johnson's wife, Cookie, and their son are HIV-negative.
Johnson's announcement, which came at the peak of his NBA fame,coincided with a dramatic drop in HIV infections nationwide, from morethan 80,000 new cases per year to about 50,000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the infection rate has since leveled off, a trend some attribute to complacence.
"Some people feel that because [Johnson] has lived on, they can havecertain behaviors and live on, too," said Amelia Williamson, presidentof the Beverly Hills-based Magic Johnson Foundation. "But his messageis, 'Follow my lead. Don't make same mistakes I made.'"
Indeed, HIV treatments, the product of years of research, can helppeople with HIV live long lives without developing AIDS. But the drugscome at a cost.
"HIV is not a death sentence, but it's a life sentence," said Hydeia Broadbent,28, who was born HIV-positive to an intravenous drug user. "You'll betaking pills forever, going to the doctor and fighting for insuranceforever."
Broadbent met Johnson at a televised AIDS awareness eventwhen she was 7 years old. When he asked what she wanted people to knowabout HIV, she replied through tiny sobs, "I want people to know thatwe're just normal people."
Now an HIV and AIDS activist herself, Broadbent recognizes the impact ofJohnson's bold admission and his mission to raise awareness.
"There aren't really any other celebrities that have come forward andspoken out about having HIV," she said. "And he's a prime example of howthis can happen to anyone. HIV doesn't discriminate based on how muchmoney you have and whether you're straight or gay. It can happen ifyou're not safe."
After she was diagnosed with HIV at age 3, Broadbent's adoptive parentsenrolled her in clinical trials for experimental HIV drugs, a move shesaid saved her life.
"They basically signed me up to be a human guinea pig," she said, addingthat many of her friends died from AIDS in the 1990s. "By the grace ofGod, I'm still here."
Despite advances in HIV testing and treatments, AIDS still kills nearly18,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC. Part of the problem isthat one in five people living with HIV is unaware, according to theMagic Johnson Foundation.
That's why Nov. 7 is "Point Forward Day,"an awareness event named after Johnson's role as both point guard andforward with the L.A. Lakers created to educate people about HIV andencourage them to get tested so they can get treated.
"It's about finding out early, but it's also about education, becausethere are still so many myths out there," the foundation's Williamsonsaid. "HIV doesn't have to happen to you when you make the rightdecisions and practice safe sex."