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How did Magic Johnson contract HIV? Exploring how the NBA legend beat the dreaded disease as he denies donating blood rumor 

NBA superstar Magic Johnson denied a false blood donation rumor that went viral on social media (Image via Getty Images)
NBA superstar Magic Johnson denied a false blood donation rumor that went viral on social media (Image via Getty Images)

Former NBA superstar Magic Johnson recently denied a false social media rumor which claimed that he was donating blood to the Red Cross organization.

A satirical Twitter account initially posted a photo of the athlete sitting in front of a medical professional and getting his blood drawn. The caption of the now-deleted post read:

“Earlier today, NBA legend Magic Johnson donated some of his blood to the Red Cross to help disadvantaged communities fight COVID-19.”

Johnson, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, responded to the rumor and assured that he has never donated blood:

I’m aware of the false story circling the internet, and to be clear, I have never donated blood.

Shortly after, the Associated Press conducted a fact-check and confirmed that the resurfaced photo was “miscaptioned” and taken from a 2012 PBS Frontline documentary titled Endgame: AIDS in Black America.

The viral image showed Magic Johnson having his blood drawn by Dr. David Ho during a routine appointment in 2012 and not donating his blood to others. The American Red Cross prohibits any HIV-positive individual or anyone at risk of contracting the virus from donating blood as HIV can be transmitted through blood.


A look into Magic Johnson’s journey with HIV

Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and has been surviving with the condition for 31 years (Image via Getty Images)
Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991 and has been surviving with the condition for 31 years (Image via Getty Images)

Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV during a preseason routine physical examination in 1991. The former Los Angeles Lakers star also confirmed his diagnosis in a press conference that same year before announcing his retirement from the NBA:

"Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire today from the Lakers."

Johnson’s diagnosis came at a time when there was a major lack of awareness about HIV and the disease was considered to be a death sentence. The condition was also highly stigmatized and although treatment was underway, it was not adequate to cure advanced forms of diagnosis.

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Despite the challenges, Magic Johnson managed to survive with HIV for 31 years and is now hailed as one of the most prominent advocates of HIV awareness prevention.

Although the NBA legend initially said he was unaware of how he contracted the disease, he eventually admitted that he got it through unprotected physical relationships he had with several women in the past.

During a 2011 interview with Frontline, Magic Johnson said that teens “must educate themselves” and have “safe” physical relationships. He also mentioned that he had already had such discussions with his then-teenage children, so they refrained from making the same mistakes Johnson made when he was young:

"You have to have these conversations, because they are important. Especially coming from me, I am living with this virus. I don’t want [my kids] to ever have it, so I have to tell them… what can happen to them if they do the same thing I did."

Nearly three decades after he was diagnosed, Johnson remembered how he thought his life was about to end after the initial diagnosis. The basketball star appeared on CBS Mornings last year and told Gayle King that he eventually decided to educate himself more on the condition:

"You just sit there and say, what does this mean? Am I gonna die?' I had to really learn a lot about the disease, HIV as well as AIDS. I had to make sure that I was open-minded enough to ask a lot of questions and get a lot of information from different people."
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Magic Johnson also spoke to The Guardian about his treatment and said that a combination of three or four antiretroviral drugs, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART), served as a key element in saving his life:

"They told me that the three-drug combination was going to save my life, and they were right. As we talk today, right now, I'm thinking, 'Wow' – it’s been 30 years and I'm still here, healthy. Everything has gone right. There was one drug then, now we have 30-something drugs."

Dr. David Ho, who played a key role in Johnson’s treatment, told The Daily Beast that the athlete was placed on the then-experimental cocktail drug in 1994 before it was made available to the public:

"Since we pioneered that therapy, we were able to include Mr. Johnson early, and it made a major difference in his health and overall being."

Spencer Lieb, senior epidemiologist and HIV/AIDS research coordinator for the Florida Consortium for HIV/AIDS Research, also shared a similar statement while speaking to Life's Little Mysteries about Johnson’s initial treatment:

"Magic got a jumpstart on experimental drugs before they were released to the general public but there were many people in clinical trials benefitting at the same time."
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Johnson further elaborated on his journey with HIV on Apple TV+ docuseries They Call Me Magic, released earlier this year. He shared that he believed he was about to die before undergoing life-changing treatment and asked his agent Lon Rosen to take care of his loved ones:

"I was telling him, if anything happens, you make sure you take care of my family."

Rosen revealed that Johnson even contemplated taking his own life during the initial days of his diagnosis:

"At one point, [Magic] said, 'I don't know if I want to live, I might just end it.'"

Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Ho also appeared on the series and shared that treatment for HIV was critical at the time of Johnson’s diagnosis as medical professionals found treatments for patients who were diagnosed at an early stage but could not help those who reached an advanced stage.

The physicians shared that they decided to put Johnson on treatments that protected his immune system before using the cocktail-drug that was later introduced. Several other experts also attributed the antiretroviral drugs that helped Johnson manage his disease.

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Although Magic Johnson’s HIV is now “undetectable,” the NBA legend continues to remain under medication. However, with the advancements in treatments, his dosage has currently decreased:

“A cocktail, once a day. It went from three times a day, to now just once. And so everything is great.”

Following his initial retirement, Johnson was voted into the 1992 NBA All-Star Game in Orlando and was crowned the All-Star MVP after scoring 25 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds. He was then voted into the U.S. National “Dream Team” to compete in the Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics.

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Although Johnson’s played infrequently due to his knee problems, he received a standing ovation from the audience and used the moment to speak on HIV. The athlete officially resigned for the second time in 1996.

The Hall of Famer eventually established Magic Johnson Enterprises and became the co-owner of the Los Angeles Sparks and Los Angeles Dodgers. Since his retirement, Johnson has also spent the majority of his time advocating for HIV awareness, treatment and prevention through his Magic Johnson Foundation.

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Edited by Prem Deshpande
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