Earvin “Magic” Johnson, in his black-suede shoes with the alligator tips, straightens his thick shoulders and lumbers into a waiting crowd. He’s at a music festival he organized in Santa Monica, California, and his shiny dome bobs high above the curious who draw close to him like a single organism.

He flashes that famous boyish grin and, for a few short minutes, it’s as if he’s back in the NBA, Nikons clicking, flashes popping, heads turning, bodies crushed around him, while handlers elbow them back and bark orders (“Hold up a second; everybody’ll get their shot!”). Magic is clearly loving it—in fact, he’s made for it.

Behind a curtain, content and away from it all, is a caramel-colored woman with wide-set eyes and blown-straight hair, parted, Cher-like, down the middle. She’s Cookie, Magic’s wife of 12 years, the woman who has been at his side through the best and the worst of times.

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The moment is burned into memory: Magic and Cookie Johnson standing together as he announced to the world that he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS. At that press conference in 1991, they opened themselves up to widespread sympathy and the kind of ridicule and ignorance few could bear.

They stood there as newlyweds, married just weeks after years of an on-again, off-again relationship. Only days before, they had been giddy over the news that they were expecting their first child. Somehow, the moment Cookie heard the crushing news herself, she summoned up a depth of love and forgiveness that would elude the most faithful of souls, and she did it on reflex, she says, without thinking twice.

“It was because of the love,” she explains with the quiet matter-of-factness her husband relies on. “I loved him, and I knew he loved me. I knew he didn’t do it to hurt me. I was willing to fight for that love. I wasn’t ready to throw it away.” Since then, they have managed to do what few thought possible.

Not only did they stay together after the diagnosis, but they also grew closer, almost because of it, surviving more than most couples will ever endure.