When Magic Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis to his new wife, Cookie Johnson, in 1991, she didn’t turn and run away.
However, she was upset when he told her he’d understand if she wanted out.
“[She] slapped me really hard,” Magic tells PEOPLE.
Cookie never considered leaving, and immediately knew they would face the crisis together.
“It was difficult. We cried for a couple of days just holding each other,” he says. “She thought it was a death sentence because that’s all we knew.”
However, that decision to stay, he says, likely saved his life.
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“I think that if Cookie had left I’d probably be dead now – no question about it,” Magic says. “The reason I live today, and the reason I work as hard today, is for my wife and my family.”
“I knew that she was a special woman when I told her she could leave and she decided to stay with me and support me,” he adds.
Magic was drawn to Cookie almost immediately when they began dating as college students at Michigan State University.
The first time they met was at a club before Christmas break, and Magic, who was already a basketball star around campus at the time, recalls watching her dance all night.
“I never asked her to dance,” he says. “I just watched her dance and I said, ‘I’ve got to get to know that woman.’ ”
Magic left the nightclub with Cookie’s phone number. She had doubts that the athlete would contact her, but he says he called her multiple times over the break and finally reached her the minute she returned to campus.
This article originally appeared on PEOPLE.com