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We also had learned that the virus was different from the disease. We weren't fooling ourselves; we knew that I would probably contract AIDS within 10 years. But we knew that, with the right medical treatment and a proper diet, I could lead a normal life—until my immune system just couldn't protect me from illness anymore.
The doctors then said that because the physical and emotional rigors of the 82-game Laker season might weaken my immune system, just as the virus would, they were recommending that I retire from pro basketball. I honestly didn't give it a second thought. I responded the same way I have responded to every difficult challenge in my personal and professional life—from the knee injury in 1980 that forced me to miss 45 games to the death of my sister Mary in 1987, when she was only 33, after a long battle with leukemia. "O.K., that's it," I said. "I'll deal with it."
The way I chose to deal with the HIV infection was to go public. Until last week I was just like so many other people in this country: I was ignorant of the reality of AIDS. I hadn't paid attention to the statistics that showed that almost 1 million Americans are HIV-positive, that some 200,000 have AIDS and that more than 125,000 have died from the disease in the last 10 years.
I particularly hadn't paid attention to the figures showing that AIDS is a huge problem in the black community. I didn't know that half of the Americans currently suffering from the disease are either black or Hispanic. Like most other blacks, I was denying that AIDS was spreading through our community like wildfire while we ignored the flames.
To me, AIDS was someone else's disease. It was a disease for gays and drug users. Not for someone like me.
My ignorance could cost me my life, but I wanted to try and ensure that no one else would become infected with HIV for the same reason. The following day I stood at a podium at The Great Western Forum—the place where I had some of my greatest moments as a Laker—and spoke from my heart. I said that because I had tested HIV-positive, I was retiring from the NBA. I also said that I was going to become a spokesperson in the fight against the human immunodeficiency virus and an advocate for practicing safe sex by using condoms.
I also said I was going to beat the disease. And I will.
It had all begun in early September when Lon and I opened talks with the Lakers to find a way to raise my salary—$2.5 million for the 1991-92 season—to the level of the league's highest-paid players. Larry Bird will earn more than $7 million in salary and bonuses this season, John Williams of the Cleveland Cavaliers will make $4 million, and Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets will earn $3.5 million. After Sam Perkins signed with us before last season, I wasn't even the highest-paid Laker. Dr. Jerry Buss, the team's owner, and Jerry West, its general manager, agreed that I should earn more this season, but because of the salary cap, which puts a ceiling on NBA teams' payrolls, they couldn't offer me an extension of my contract, which expires at the end of the 1993-94 season. We discovered that a loan was the only permissible way to give me more money, and we quickly settled on $3 million, which I received just before the end of the month.
NBA teams routinely take out insurance policies on their highest-paid players and add to that coverage when their investment in those players increases, and the insurance companies sometimes require the insured party to take a physical. If anything frightens me now, it's the thought of what might have happened to my wife and child had I not negotiated the loan and taken that physical.
In the three weeks between the time I closed the deal with the Lakers and the day I learned I was HIV-positive, my physical condition never changed. I experienced some fatigue upon returning from Paris, but my doctors told me that it was caused by a combination of the stress of the event and jet lag from the 13-hour return trip to Los Angeles. But I never had the flu, as the team announced after I didn't show up for the game against the Jazz on October 25 and then missed the first three games of the regular season.