Cookie Johnson: 'I Fell to My Knees' When Magic Revealed His HIV Diagnosis

"We both fell on our knees, and we started crying," she tells Robin Roberts.

ByABC News
September 20, 2016, 8:05 AM

— -- Magic Johnson's wife, Cookie Johnson, recalls the moment her NBA star husband told her the devastating news that he was HIV-positive.

"It scared me to death. I mean, I fell to my knees," she told "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts. "We both fell on our knees and we started crying."

It was Nov. 7, 1991, when Los Angeles Lakers star player Earvin "Magic" Johnson publicly announced his diagnosis and sent shock waves across the nation. Back at home, the news tested the strength of their marriage.

Cookie Johnson shares the story from her perspective in her new memoir, "Believing in Magic."

"I didn't have time to get mad about whatever happened, you know, or start asking questions. [My mind] went to 'He is possibly going to die,'" Johnson told Roberts. "There wasn't a lot of knowledge back in 1991."

The couple wed on Sept. 14, 1991, just 45 days before Magic revealed his diagnosis to his wife. Johnson is adamant that she never wavered in supporting her husband.

"He said, 'If you want to leave, you know, I don't blame you. It's OK. I understand.' Then I said, 'Are you kidding me? No. I love you. I'm gonna stay here and help you live. I'm gonna stay here and we're gonna beat this thing. We're gonna figure out how to beat this thing,'" she recalled.

The newlyweds had also just found out she was pregnant with their first child, E.J., now 24. Johnson said she agonized while she waited for her test results for herself and her unborn child.

"I was scared to death about the baby. I mean, I had just found out I was pregnant so it was really early in the pregnancy," she said. "In those days, you had to wait almost 10 days to get your results back, so that was agonizing. And then, finally, the results came in and what they told me was that if the mother is negative, then the baby is automatically negative. And they didn't have to worry about trying to test the baby because, really, I mean, he hadn't really formed yet, actually. I mean, it was very early on.”

Johnson also shared her heartache as she waited behind closed doors as her husband made phone calls to the various women he had slept with.

"It was like, 'Who is he calling? You know, why is he in there so long?' she said. "That was a difficult day."

Magic credits Elizabeth Glaser, who founded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation after she contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, for bringing out the courage in him to become a public advocate for HIV awareness.

“I think we both gotta give Elizabeth Glaser a lot of credit for our strength in helping us to really understand what we had to go through as a family and then myself, what I had to go through,” Magic said. “And she was dying at that time. But she was able to meet with both of us and really help us, you know, really calm us down. Help us understand, you know, "Look Earvin, you're gonna have to take a lot of meds, but it's about your attitude, your mindset."

"My doctor had told me that, but it's different hearing it from somebody who's actually going through it," Magic added. "And [Glaser] said, 'One thing I want you to do ... and that's be the face of it.' And she wanted me to go public. [Cookie and I] had a difficult conversation. It was tough, because Cookie was afraid of what might happen, the backlash if we went public. So we had a lot of conversations and a lot of long walks."

The couple turned their mess into their message, becoming advocates for HIV awareness programs, education and prevention, and the couple's relationship grew stronger, Johnson said. The Magic Johnson Foundation was formed in 1991 to address the educational, health and social needs of ethnically diverse, urban communities. Magic returned for the 1992 Olympic gold medal winning “Dream Team,” as well as another season for the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1995-96 team.

The NBA star credits his wife for her unconditional support.

"This woman here, God let me know why I married her, why he brought us together,” Cookie told Roberts. “I know when I come here [home], I'm not Magic. I'm Earvin. We're still those kids from Michigan. I'm only as good as Cookie.”

The couple recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and have raised three children together, Andre, E.J. and Elisa.

Cookie Johnson on Coming to Terms With Her Son Being Gay

The couple never kept it secret that their son, Earvin Johnson III, who goes by E.J., is gay, but Cookie and Magic Johnson explained how they came to terms with it.

“I have pictures of all the Little League stuff I put him in and the baseball teams and the football teams. And it just wasn't his thing. Ultimately you want your child to be happy,” she said.

“But I also knew that Earvin didn't understand. And I was still trying to figure it out. I'm not going to sit here and say that I understood that he was gay at that time, because I didn't. I just knew that this is what made him happy. And as time went on, it never changed.”

Magic said he had a change of heart after a tough conversation with his son.

“I had to come to realize that this is who he is, and he's going to be happy. And so why am I judging him?” Magic said. “I’m his father, so I got to be the first one to say, ‘It's OK and I love you. Now, how can I help you?’"

E.J. went public with his sexual orientation in 2013 and owned his public debut as the news was picked up by entertainment sites. E.J. went on to become a reality star of E’s “Rich Kids of Beverly Hills” and his own spinoff show, “EJNYC,” which premiered this summer.

“He has a combination of both of us,” Magic said. “The soul comes from her [Cookie]. He's very intelligent, and his mindset is like his dad's. So he never makes a quick decision. He knows what he wants. He knows how he wants it done. And he's gonna be just that. And that's what I love about him. E.J., when he walks in a room, this is the most confident guy."

“We know that religion says ‘no’ and I did have a big problem with that and I prayed about it a lot,” Cookie said. “I went to Bible study, talked to a Bible study teacher about it a lot. Ultimately, I just prayed to God and said, "God you revealed to me how you feel about this." And he was like, "Love your child." … And that's what I'm doing.”