We caught up with the NBA legend to talk roundball, his ongoing work for AIDS/HIV awareness, and who makes his dream pick-up team. (Kobe and LeBron, you’ll want to listen in.)
Photographed for Maxim by Luis Vega
When you made the decision to tell the world that you were HIV positive, did you see yourself in this ambassador role 20 years later?
When I first found out I had HIV I had to find somebody who was living with it, who could help me understand my journey and what I was going to have to deal with day-to-day. I found out that a person named Elizabeth Frazier was living with AIDS at the time, and so I called her up and she took a meeting with me. She told me I was going to be here a long time. She told me great drugs were coming down the pipeline. Unfortunately, she was not going to benefit from those drugs. Dr. Ho, my doctor, told me the same thing. Elizabeth eased my mind. She helped me through the process. The one thing she wanted me to do was to become the face of the disease. I promised her I would, and I’ve been educating the world ever since. It’s important for everyone, and especially minorities now with the numbers on the rise.
Are there two Magics: the basketball guru and the HIV activist? Or is it one and the same?
It’s one and the same, because you are always going to be a guy who knows basketball. Now you’ve become the face of HIV and AIDS. You will never become an expert the way you are at basketball, but you come close to that. There are more people who have been in the fight longer than I have. They’re the experts. I am an expert at living with HIV - in terms of taking my meds, having a positive attitude, working out. I have to have that expertise every single day to survive. And that’s why it is so important to me for people to know about this home detection product OraQuick. People don’t want to go to a doctor a lot of times because they don’t want people to know they’re being tested. Now, you can do it in the confines of your home. You can have your support system right there as you’re finding out your status. I think it’s a game changer.
Photographed for Maxim by Luis Vega
When you made your announcement, there were players who were pretty vocal about you not returning to the game. Have you heard from any of those guys since?
Oh yeah. First of all, the public was not educated enough. The NBA and athletes definitely weren’t educated. Even some friends weren’t educated. They didn’t know if they could give me a hug or give me a pound or a high-five. A lot of them looked at you; they didn’t know if they could touch you. They didn’t know how you could get the virus. Guys like Karl Malone, who didn’t want me to come back – all those guys said, “Hey man, I’m sorry. I wasn’t educated.” And they were right. I didn’t hold a grudge against them. Commissioner Stern and I we went out and educated everybody. So, hats off to Commissioner Stern and the NBA.
Michael Jordan recently picked you as a member of his dream pick-up team. Can you give us your picks?
There’s no question I’d draft Michael and Larry first, in that order. That’s easy. If it is of all time, then I would probably have Bill Russell and Kareem. Hmm, who would be my other guy? I’d have to go with Dr. J. Or I can go with Kobe now. Kobe would probably work. He’s been incredible. I would probably put Kobe in there now.
So LeBron doesn’t make the team?
Not yet. You have to remember how many championships all those guys have.
So it’s all about hardware?
That’s what I count. The thing is: you have to win championships. I think LeBron will end up being there, without a doubt. I’m sure within the next three to four years I’ll probably have him in my dream team. But right now, when you look at Kobe’s five, you look at Michael’s six…
Is Phil Jackson your coach?
Oh yeah, him or Pat Riley, no question. You have to win championships. Phil – I think he has 11.
When you watch the game today, do you feel like, “Oh if I was on the court today, I would just destroy you guys.”?
No, I’m happy. I think LeBron being the face is incredible. We have a great face. We needed somebody. LeBron makes his teammates better. That’s why he’s so special. That’s why one day he will be one of the best who’s ever played, if not challenge Michael for the best. I’m happy that you’ve got Kevin Durant, you’ve got enough guys - Chris Paul. I mean, we can go on and on and on. Derrick Rose. We’ve got enough unbelievably talented guys. And I’m happy that basketball is back strong in New York, because New York makes the numbers great. You have the most real true fans in New York. Basketball - street basketball, college basketball, high school basketball - it's so big in New York. I still feel that it’s going to come down to New York, between the Nets and the Knicks, who wins that Atlantic Division.
So there is hope for the Knicks?
Both of them are struggling now, but that’s going to happen over the course of 82 games. It always has a way of working itself out. I think the league is in good hands right now. And look what’s coming. Man, these freshmen that are about to hit next year, oh my goodness! The NBA is going to be stronger than ever for years.
When you spoke earlier, you talked about how you worried that announcing your HIV positive diagnosis would turn fans against you. Now, the stakes were obviously much, much lower, but did you have any advice for LeBron when his announcement turned the world against him?
I didn’t have to say it to him. I said it on air and he got the message. His game will take care of it. He really didn’t have to say a lot. When that announcement happened, he didn’t have any championships. But in basketball, winning changes everything. So, he went through that period, but then he won. Then he goes back-to-back. Now we haven’t heard one thing about that. Now, it’s, “Okay, where does he fit all-time?” Everything changed in two years. So, you have to remember that things can change, just like for me. I’m more popular now than when I was playing. My Q ratings are higher now than when I was at the top of my game as a basketball player. I think because I’m involved in HIV, I’m owning the Dodgers…things change for you as you grow. So, LeBron grew and people like what they see. I grew and people like what they see. That’s what happens.
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