Candid Conversations with Cookie Johnson
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November 7, 1991 Earvin “Magic” Johnson made an announcement that shook the world. During a press conference, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard told the world he was HIV-positive. At the time, his wife of two-months, Cookie, had just found out that she was pregnant with their son, EJ. “I had a choice, to leave and let him die or stay and help him live” recalled Cookie during an intimate conversation and book signing at Valencia Christian Center (VCC) for her newly released memoir, “Believing In Magic”.
During the Q&A which was moderated by VCC Pastor Marlon Saunders, Cookie gave the congregation a glimpse into some of the non-glamourous but relatable aspects of the last two decades of her life which included her adopted daughter Elisa reconnecting with her birth mother, her son EJ coming out as gay and the launching of her denim line, CJ by Cookie Johnson.
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The fashion designer and philanthropist candidly shared that she was initially against the press conference that revealed Magic’s diagnoses as she worried about whether people would shun them in public, turn them away from restaurants and treat them as social outcasts. According to her, it was Magic who was adamant about revealing his condition to the world. He said to her, ‘I have to do this because I have to try and save as many people as possible.” Cookie said it was at this point, “That’s when I knew that it was God’s purpose for him.” she added. “And my purpose was to make sure that he was healthy and strong and that our family was taken care of so that he could carry out his purpose.”
Prior to Magic’s revelation, the Johnson’s relationship had already been tested several times when the NBA star called off their engagement twice. Having grown up in the church, Cookie was able to lean on scriptures to help her withstand the heartbreak. When the couple finally tied the knot and she was suddenly thrust into a new-normal in trying to help her husband maintain his health. At the time of Magic’s diagnoses, there was a stigma associated with HIV that it was a homosexual disease as well as the presumption that there would be a swift deterioration prior to an untimely death. However, Cookie attributes Magic’s continuous good health and weigh gain over the past two decades to their strong spiritual beliefs. “[We] pushed out the negative thoughts of his death with the scriptures: ’No weapon formed against me shall prosper’ and ‘By my stripes you are healed.’ The Bible is full of promises of what God will do for you. I had to take those promises, embed them into my head and trust what God said. [Eventually] trusts turns into faith because you know He’s going to do it. You take that fear and turn it into faith—that’s how I’ve survived.”
While many people are enthralled by Magic’s basketball career as well as his various entrepreneurial endeavors, Pastor Saunders was adamant about the importance of celebrating the integral position that Cookie has played in Magic’s personal and professional success. “The wives are handling all of the things you don’t see behind the scenes; whether it’s prayer, encouragement, comfort, maintaining the household, etc. so the 1% of things that the world does see, goes off without a hitch.”
With insight on how she manages the demands of being a wive, mother and First Lady, Tamara Saunders shared, “It’s a matter of time management and priorities. You can have it all, but not all at once. Never lose sight of your goals but sometimes you have to stick a pin in it and come back to it. Whenever you have a few minutes, carve out time for what’s important to you and eventually you’ll look up and see whatever you’ve been working on has come to fruition. Patience and prioritizing is how I manage things.”
Echoing similar sentiments, in an exclusive interview with the L.A. Sentinel, Cookie spoke of the importance of women who may marry athletes having lives outside of their celebrity spouse. “I tell young women to first of all, have your own dreams and goals and continue to pursue those even if you decide to date someone with a high profile, remember to always stay true to who you are and don’t lose yourself in that person. Make sure you stay true to yourself and develop a strategy of how you want to accomplish the dreams that are important to you. That should all work together in tandem with the relationship. Don’t drop your dream to run after someone because you might look up and regret that you didn’t pursue the things that you were passionate about because you were caught up in someone else’s dreams.”
For young women who may have experienced a breakup and are trying to discern if a relationship is worth fighting for, Cookie shares the importance of prayer, “You have to ask, ‘God, how do I find the purpose that you have for me? Be honest and true in the relationship but at the same time, don’t loose who you are.”
When asked why it was important to have Cookie speak during the Sunday service, Pastor Saunder’s said, “This is real life, this isn’t a bible story that sometimes we can be disconnected from. It’s not a story handed down through generations. Cookie Johnson isn’t an intangible person, she’s a real human being and she’s sharing her testimony of all of the things she’s gone through and overcome, that’s powerful.”
In closing the Q&A, Saunders wanted the congregation to revel in Johnson’s testimony. “Most people give up having gone through a lot less” He said. “You all may own half of L.A. now…” Saunders joked, “We celebrate your glory but we don’t know your story,” he added.