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Magic Johnson opens up about his health, career 30 years after HIV diagnosis: "You just sit there and say, what does this mean? Am I gonna die?"

Magic Johnson on surviving HIV
Magic Johnson on surviving HIV 10:49

When Magic Johnson's iconic basketball career was interrupted by a stunning HIV diagnosis three decades ago, the newlywed NBA legend had no idea how much time he had to live or how the virus would affect his wife and their unborn child.

"You just sit there and say, what does this mean? Am I gonna die?'" he told "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King.

Johnson, who remains HIV-undetectable to this day, opened up about living with the virus and his career in an exclusive interview for "CBS Mornings" nearly 30 years after he publicly announced his HIV diagnosis.

Today, the Lakers star is a loving father and grandfather, a successful businessman, a philanthropist and the CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises. He and Cookie have been together throughout this time, and neither she nor their son, Earvin Johnson III, have HIV.

At the time of his diagnosis, Johnson thought the virus was a death sentence.

"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, go get a lot of information from different people," he said.

Johnson first learned of his diagnosis after a routine physical ahead of the 1991-92 NBA season. He was called back home from a pre-season game in Utah, so that Lakers team physician Dr. Michael Mellman could deliver the news in person. When Johnson first heard the news, he was "devastated," he said.

"I'm asking him 100 times, 'Are you sure?'" Johnson recalls asking his doctor. "And they say, 'Hey, we ran the tests a couple of times, and yes, you do have HIV.' And so I just lost it right there, you know?"

Mellman told him he had a chance to live for a long time with all the new drugs that were being developed, Johnson said. But the toughest part of his diagnosis, he said, was to drive home and tell his wife. 

"It was hard because I loved her so much and I hated to hurt her," he said. 

When Johnson broke the news to her, Cookie knew it was "probably through sexual contact," since he hadn't had any blood transfusions, but she was worried about something else.

"It wasn't how he got it that was important to me. It was, 'You're possibly going to die.' And that trumped everything," she told CBS News. 

The couple, who met as students at Michigan State University in the 1970s, had married about a month before his diagnosis and they had just learned about her pregnancy.

Johnson said it was a huge relief when his wife's and baby's test results came back negative.

"Yes, because I was scared to death," he said. "I wanted to make sure that she was gonna be OK, the baby was gonna be OK, and then I could move forward with trying to make sure I was gonna be OK."

Cookie stood by her husband's side all along, but she initially did not want him to hold the now-famous Nov. 7, 1991 news conference announcing his diagnosis — and short-lived retirement — because of the stigma surrounding AIDS.

"At that time, people weren't educated. So they thought you couldn't touch people, you couldn't hug people," she said. "And I didn't want people to treat us like we were lepers."

Cookie eventually went to the news conference wearing a white suit that she said symbolized "brightness" and "a future." 

Johnson went on to attack the HIV stigma with the same passion he displayed on the court, launching the Magic Johnson Foundation to raise awareness about the virus, then pushing Congress and the White House to spend money to fight the disease.  

But he still longed for the game of basketball, and his first retirement would not last long. 

Even though Johnson had not played a single regular season game, fans voted him onto the NBA All-Star team in 1992. And a few months later, he would play on the U.S. Olympic "Dream Team."

"It proved to be the right decision," he said. "It helped people who were living with not just HIV and AIDS, but with any disease, that you can live on, you can be — live a productive life."

There were mixed reviews about his comeback, with several players uncomfortable with the idea of playing alongside an HIV-positive athlete. Even one of his Olympic teammates, Karl Malone, expressed concern about having to play against Johnson after he got cut on the court during a game.

"Yeah, I got cut. And I was very upset at the backlash 'cause I just played with a lot of the guys who didn't want me to come back," Johnson said. 

He ended up retiring again — before returning to the sport he loved one more time in 1996.

"I told Cookie, I said, 'You know what? Maybe I should look at playing one more time," Johnson said, noting that he wanted to "end it the right way."

"And that's why I came back," he said. "I ended it the way I wanted it to end."

After that, his focus finally began to shift. He would sit on the couch and watch the Lakers play, thinking, "I should be there," he recalls. But Cookie came home one day and said something that "changed my life," Johnson said.

His wife remembers that moment too.

"'I'm looking at you like this sitting on this couch. That's not the man I married,'" she recalls telling him. "'You know, the man I married was a hard worker. You know, he was changing the world. He had all these ideas. He was so full of life. I don't know who this is. You need to get up and figure that out.'"

That real talk proved effective. Today, Johnson runs point in the boardroom as CEO of his namesake company, an investment company focused on providing high-quality products and services to underserved communities. 

And while his HIV is still undetectable, he must take his medication everyday. 

"A cocktail, once a day," he said. "It went from three times a day, now just once. And so everything is great."

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