Magic Johnson is no less ambitious than he was when he was winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. Johnson is always seeking out new business ventures, having recently become part owner of the Washington Commanders and Los Angeles Dodgers. But amidst these new endeavors, Johnson’s dedication to HIV/AIDS advocacy has never wavered.
At the 4th annual Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Magic and his wife Cookie Johnson were presented with the Elizabeth Taylor Commitment to End AIDS Award, named for the late actress who used her platform to fight for awareness for the disease. Taylor and the Johnsons were very close and worked together as advocates before her death.
“This is where our heart is,” Magic Johnson said of the honor. “We’ve been raising money and awareness, we’ve been educating people about HIV and AIDS, we’ve been caring for people, making sure they had housing. All those things are important to us. We’ve worked with [Elizabeth] so much…in the past so it’s an honor for Cookie and I.”
Cookie Johnson praised her husband for leading by example and inspiring others considering the climate and conditions he faced ahead.
“To be someone in a high profile situation and be able to go out and be brave enough to stand up against HIV and AIDS, especially in 1991 — To be strong enough to do that, I think that made a big difference and a lot of people follow suit,” Cookie Johnson said.
Giving back and helping others remains extremely important to them: “That’s dear to our heart and God gave us that purpose. So we will continue to just keep going and going and going. You’re never going to see us stop ‘cause that’s not who I am,” Magic Johnson said.
Barbara Berkowitz, who is an officer at the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation and worked personally with Taylor for years, reflected on the significance of the evening, naming apathy as the biggest challenge facing HIV/AIDS awareness right now.
“People just don’t think it’s still a problem because people are living longer, there’s medications. But we have to do more,” Berkowitz said. “Laws have to be changed. Money has to be raised and we have to do more.”
Event co-chairs Paris Jackson and Christine Chiu were also present alongside stars Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Tilly and Richard and Kathy Hilton. In addition to celebrating the Johnsons, the event showcased the stories of other people impacted by HIV/AIDS, highlighted the impact of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and raised money for the organization. Finally, “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight performed at the end of the night.
The black tie gala was hosted by Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance. In her opening speech, Bassett said she was thrilled to recognize the Johnsons for their work in spreading HIV awareness, prevention and education. She ended her speech by calling for continued efforts in the fight to end AIDS.
“Let’s commit to ending this epidemic because we have all the necessary tools. Let’s make a commitment to Elizabeth’s vision of an AIDS free world,” Bassett said.
Before presenting the Johnsons with the award, Vance relayed a message from Barack Obama. The former president recalled the day he heard the announcement that Magic Johnson had contracted HIV, reflecting on the uncertainty of not knowing whether he would survive — let alone play basketball again. But Obama said the Johnsons’ approach to his diagnosis changed the way the world saw the disease.
“They moved us to think in an entirely new way about a condition affecting millions of people around the world, changing attitudes with the kind of grace and encouragement that only true leaders can display,” Vance said, reading Obama’s message.
In his speech, Magic Johnson reflected on how the conversations surrounding HIV/AIDS have changed drastically since his diagnosis in 1991, while acknowledging there is still more work to be done. He also addressed his wife, thanking her for her continued support over the years.
“I said to you, ‘I understand if you want to leave me,’ and you smacked me so hard,” Magic Johnson said. “The reason I tell this story is because a lot of people don’t get that type of support when they tell their parents, or tell their loved one, or tell their partner. You have stuck right beside my side every step of the way.”
Sharing the microphone, Cookie Johnson emphasized their gratitude for Elizabeth Taylor and the legacy of her foundation.
“To see that this is still going on, it’s just everything,” she said. “And so tonight, we pledge that we will carry this on, Elizabeth.”
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