Cookie Johnson on Faith, Purpose and Survival

Twenty-five years after her NBA legend husband Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was HIV positive, Cookie Johnson shares her story. 

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Cookie Johnson

Dressed in white with a stoic look on her face, Earlitha “Cookie” Johnson sat next to her superstar husband Earvin “Magic” Johnson at a press conference that would become an iconic moment in sports history.

It was November 7, 1991, only two months into her marriage to the 3-time MVP of the NBA. Unbeknownst to the flock of journalists present, Johnson was also pregnant with the couple’s first child. She braced herself as her husband made the announcement that would change both of their lives forever:

“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today,” the 6’9 legend announced to the world, shattering misconceptions of who could be impacted by the virus.

While some of the sports journalists in the room that day were crying, Johnson writes of that day in her new memoir, Believing in Magic: My Story of Love, Overcoming Adversity, and Keeping the Faith, “I was completely numb.”

Johnson and her unborn child did not contract HIV, but the stigma of AIDS and the wide-spread ignorance about HIV threatened to ostracize them from friends and loved ones. Above all, Johnson feared for her husband’s life and for the future of their family.

“Back then, in 1991, we’d really only heard of AIDS; that was the first time I’d heard of HIV, when he was diagnosed,” Johnson tells Guideposts.org. “You just automatically thought it was a death sentence.” While her husband was determined to be the face of HIV and educate the masses on getting tested and living a healthy life, Johnson had to choose what her role in this fight would be.

AIDS activist Elizabeth Glaser—who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and passed it on to her two children in childbirth—was able to convince both Johnsons that coming forward about the HIV diagnosis would save lives and be critical to the awareness movement.

Once Magic’s doctors informed her that symptoms of HIV could take up to ten years to manifest, Johnson decided not to focus on when or how he contracted the virus, but only on his life.

“Are you going to try and help him live, or are you just going to leave him and let him die?” Johnson asked herself. “I made that decision that I was going to help him live.”

But to support her husband, she first had to support herself and her baby.

“I had to get in deep into the [Bible],” Johnson tells Guideposts.org. “Going through it at the time, it was scary, but God said, ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’; He said, ‘if you put the kingdom of God first and His righteousness, all things will be given to you.’ You have to remember these promises, and say, ‘I’m not going to worry because of what God said.”

The promises of God, and particularly Psalm 91, would become her lifeline.

“That helped me get through the pain to where, now, I feel like I can easily talk to Him. I don’t have to turn to Him only when there’s a problem, I can turn to Him anytime, rejoicing.”

These days, Cookie and Magic Johnson have many reasons to rejoice. She’s the owner and designer of the jean line CJ by Cookie Johnson, the mother of two children, and her husband continues to be living proof that there is abundant life after an HIV diagnosis and an HIV/AIDS awareness activist and philanthropist through the Magic Johnson Foundation. After 12 years of on-and-off dating, 2 broken engagements and a brief, two-week split 10 years into their marriage, the Johnsons also just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a lavish ceremony on the French Riviera with family and friends.

“When you think about Earvin making it through HIV and us making it through 25 years, that’s a testimony,” Johnson says. “God really wanted Earvin to be the face of HIV and to help save as many lives as possible. In the beginning it didn’t feel like it but when you look back on it, Earvin took on that role and all the blessings came afterwards. My role was to keep him strong so he could do his purpose. God kept us together when there were so many break-ups, so many times I could’ve walked away, he could’ve walked away, but somehow every time we walked away we always got back together. I believe that was God pulling us through because He had this purpose for us and it continues.”

While Johnson was out promoting her jean line across the country, she discovered her purpose extended beyond supporting her husband and children; many women also flocked to her as a source of inspiration in tough times.

“Women would come up to me and go, ‘I didn’t come for the jeans, I just wanted to meet you because you have no idea how you’ve helped me in my life, just watching you and your husband.’ And they would share their stories and we would be crying together and it happened everywhere I went.”

Johnson decided the time was right to share her story with the world.

“The whole point of writing this book was I felt like I was telling my testimony,” she says of Believing in Magic. “I thought maybe if I write a book it can help more people in that same way, to see the way God works in my life, maybe it could help someone else in their life.”

By sharing the ups and downs of her life, she hopes other swill be encouraged to know that they are not alone.

“[Whatever you’re going through,] God can help you navigate through that,” she says. “[My] prayer always is, ‘God, what is your plan for me?’

Hearing God’s plan, she says, is like having a gut-level feeling. “You know it’s right because you will have such a peace about it. You don’t always know exactly what [your path] is, but it’s about taking that fear and turning it into faith. That’s what keeps you going.”

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