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.
“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.”
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“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.
For more from Magic and Cookie Johnson on how they coped with his HIV diagnosis, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
The couple now have two children together (Magic also has a son, Andre, from a prior relationship). Cookie was pregnant with their son, E.J., when Magic received his diagnosis but neither Cookie nor the baby had contracted the virus.
Cookie shares her perspective of the diagnosis in her new memoir, Believing in Magic. Read an exclusive excerpt in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
Cookie’s steady nature also proved to be vital when E.J., now 24, came out as gay.
“I think that she was the most important person in his life at that time to help him – and help me also at the same time,” Magic says. “Now, my son was playing with dolls when I wanted him to play sports. [Cookie said,] ‘Look, he doesn’t want to play sports, this is who he is.’ “
Magic says he encouraged his wife to tell her side of the story in her book, Believing in Magic.
“I told her she’s going to bless so many parents, so many women, so many people that want to hear her side of this, want to hear her story and how she’s dealt with myself, being a wife, being a mother, how she’s dealt with E.J. being gay – all of it coming together,” Magic says.
He adds, “Now she’s got the chance to tell everybody who she is, not hide behind Magic Johnson.”