LOS ANGELES -- Twenty years to the day after shocking and saddening the world by announcing his retirement after contracting the HIV virus, Earvin "Magic" Johnson had reason to smile Monday.
"God is good," Johnson said, speaking in front of a group of friends, family and media members on the Staples Center floor. "Here I am 20 years later. Wow. What a blessing."
Johnson used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his HIV announcement to present a $1 million check to the Magic Johnson Foundation, raised by 40 philanthropists close to Johnson who pledged $25,000 apiece.
"I've always been a leader my whole life," Johnson said. "I've always led. I didn't know how to do anything else. I never thought I had to lead in the HIV and AIDS community and be the face of the disease that is deadly and kills somebody ... When God said this is how you're going to lead today, I didn't look back. I took it. And I'm happy I've been the face of this disease. The only problem is I would be happier if the numbers (affected by the disease) in the black and brown community would go down.
"I know I've been blessed because there have been millions and millions of people who have died since I announced 20 years ago. So, this is a bittersweet day. Yes, I'm living, but people are still, even today as we speak, getting this virus. So, we must change the mindset and we must do a better job of educating those who live in Urban America, both Latinos and African Americans. So, I dedicate my life to do that. I've been around the world talking about this disease and I will continue to do so."
Johnson described the HIV virus as being "asleep in my body" and said he keeps the disease dormant by exercising every morning, maintaining a balanced diet and sticking to a drug cocktail of three pills, two times a day according to the L.A. Times.
Johnson said he has never "struggled" with the disease, but granted that treatment has gotten easier as he used to have to take up to 15-16 pills a day.
Dr. David Ho, an award-winning scientist who has worked in conjunction with Johnson to develop treatment for those affected by AIDS and HIV, said that Johnson's continued health represents the advancements in research over the last 20 years.
"Our Hall of Famer here is now the symbol now of treatment success," Ho said. "What he gets, in terms of his therapy, is typical of what most American patients receive. So, he's not the exception. He is the rule. But, he symbolizes hope because of his status."
While Ho championed how far the medical community has come in finding ways to combat dealing with the disease, he reiterated that no cure exists and time, effort and funding must continue to be given to develop a vaccine. Even with all of the advancements in treatment and awareness about HIV and AIDS, there are more than 2.5 million new infections every year and more than 2 million people die annually from the disease.
"I often say I'm good for the virus and bad for it," Johnson said. "I'm good because I'm doing better ... On the flip side of that, people see that I'm doing well so they kind of relax on HIV and AIDS."
The Magic Johnson Foundation planned to administer up to 5,000 free HIV screenings at 18 locations around the country Monday. Aside from the mobile testing units, the Magic Johnson Foundation has partnered with the L.A.-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation to open full-service treatment centers in L.A., San Francisco, Oakland and Jacksonville, Fla.
Johnson said he has spoken at more than 300 churches and more than 300 high schools and universities in the last several years, continuing to raise awareness.
"Educating people about HIV was really important to me and I got a chance to travel around the world to educate people about it," Johnson said.
Included in the crowd on hand to support Johnson were former teammates James Worthy, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson and Kurt Rambis, former coaches Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy, Lakers legends Jerry West and Bill Sharman as well as Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss along with former coach Phil Jackson and also longtime trainer Gary Vitti. Among the other guests were Johnson's wife, Cookie, and three children as well as Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and baseball hall of famer Frank Robinson.
"It's a great day," said Riley. "It's a great day for all of us."
Johnson broke down in tears when Riley and his wife, Chris, approached the stage.
"You put the 'Magic' in Earvin Johnson, I appreciate that," Johnson told Riley. "Thank you."
Even with the poignant moment, the press conference had a gala-like feel to it, with an emcee announcing speakers as they approached the dais to address the crowd and music playing over Staples Center's public address system at times. It was in harmony with Johnson's appearance at his retirement press conference 20 years ago. That day a calm and upbeat Johnson told a concerned throng of reporters at Great Western Forum, "I plan on going on living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have."
Johnson reflected on his basketball playing career that he walked away from after winning five championships and three MVP awards in 12 seasons. He later played in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as a member of the Dream Team and attempted a brief NBA comeback during the 1995-96 season, but said he regrets retiring when he did in the first place.
"At that time I think it was the right decision, but if I knew what I knew today that I could still play basketball and do my thing, I probably wouldn't have retired," Johnson said.
Johnson also looked back at the controversy in the basketball community when news of his condition first broke. He said he understood the derisive comments made by Karl Malone and Mark Price at the time. Johnson thanked Rony Seikaly for playing against him 1-on-1 and showing other NBA players that they weren't putting themselves in danger by playing basketball against him. Johnson also addressed the deteriorated relationship between himself and Isiah Thomas.
"Sometimes friends move apart from each other for whatever reason. Isiah and I moved apart from each other," Johnson said. He added that he still cared for Thomas, however, and recommended the former Pistons great for a job in the Knicks' front office after New York tried to hire Johnson for the position.
With Johnson just 32 years old at the time of his retirement, many in the public feared that he would never live to see even his 40th birthday. Now 52, Johnson has gone on living just like he pledged.
"It's been an amazing 20 years, and hopefully we have another amazing (20 years) coming," Johnson said.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.