Early in the evening of October 25, as I walked into the offices of Dr. Michael Mellman, a Los Angeles Laker team physician and one of my personal doctors, I was more curious than worried. I had been rejected for a life-insurance policy that the Lakers had tried to purchase as protection against a $3 million loan they had given me. The insurance company cited medical reasons in its letter to Laker officials, but it wasn't specific. I asked the company for an explanation, and Dr. Mellman had gotten the reply that morning. He telephoned me immediately at my hotel room in Salt Lake City, where I was resting for our preseason game that night against the Utah Jazz.
"I need to see you in my office," he said. "Today."
I wasn't particularly afraid of the test results, because I was feeling pretty good. I was actually in the best shape of my NBA career and, at 32, was about to start my 13th season with the Lakers thinking that we would be stronger than last season, when we lost the NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls in five games. I was running three to four miles on a treadmill every day and lifting weights for 30 to 45 minutes. And I had played well during the preseason, especially in two early games against the Boston Celtics and my good friend Larry Bird—I always love playing against Larry, even when it doesn't count—and in Paris at the McDonald's Open, where I was named the tournament's MVP. Everything was working. Yet something was wrong.
As I rode from Los Angeles International Airport to the doctor's office with my agent, Lon Rosen, we discussed the possibilities. Maybe my blood pressure was unusually high, I said, since my father had suffered from that illness for most of his life. Or maybe I had some kind of heart problem, which might have scared the insurance company into thinking that I might have an attack during a game. Whatever my problem was, it never crossed my mind that it would force me to retire from professional basketball.
And I never, ever thought that it might kill me.
"Earvin, sit down. I have your test results," Dr. Mellman said. "You're HIV-positive. You have the AIDS virus."
Suddenly I felt sick. I was numb. In shock. And, yes, I was scared. Dr. Mellman quickly told me that I didn't have AIDS, that I was only infected with the virus that could someday lead to the disease. But I didn't really hear him. Like almost everyone else who has not paid attention to the growing AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and the rest of the world, I didn't know the difference between the virus and the disease. While my ears heard HIV-positive, my mind heard AIDS.
My first thoughts were about my wife, Cookie. After dating off and on since we met at Michigan State, we had gotten married on September 14, and she was now seven weeks pregnant. My biggest fear was that she and the baby were also infected. That would have been more devastating to me than anything I might have to go through in fighting AIDS, the disease with no known cure. Dr. Mellman agreed that she should be tested immediately.
As for myself, I had only one other thought: It's all over.
I was wrong. Twelve days later, after I had undergone a series of tests to verify the insurance company's diagnosis, two of my doctors—David Ho, of New York, and Mellman—came to my house. It was Wednesday evening, November 6. With Cookie sitting at my side, the doctors confirmed the original test results: I was indeed a carrier of the AIDS virus. But by then I fully understood that my life wasn't over. More important, Cookie and I also knew that she had tested negative, which meant that, so far, she and the baby were healthy. I still had something to live for.