AIDS virus robs basketball of its Magic Superstar Johnson retires after testing HIV-positive

November 08, 1991|By Richard W. Stevenson | Richard W. Stevenson,New York Times News Service

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson, one of the most popular and accomplished players in basketball history, said yesterday that he had been infected by the virus that causes AIDS and that he would retire immediately from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Speaking in composed, straightforward terms, Johnson said at a news conference at the Forum, where he played with the Lakers for 12 seasons, that he learned Wednesday that he was infected with thehuman immunodeficiency virus.

"Because of the HIV virus I have obtained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today," he said. Although Johnson is healthy now, his doctors said continued athletic competition would be unwise.

An athlete whose abilities and magnetic personality brought worldwide popularity and success to his team and to the National Basketball Association, Johnson is by far the

most famous sports figure to be infected by the AIDS virus.

In the 1980s, his team won five league championships, and his name and face have been used to sell everything from Diet Pepsi to Converse sneakers.

And because his fame spread through all levels of society from schoolyard courts to giant sports arenas, the impact of his announcement is likely to be felt by millions of people whose lives have not been touched by the disease.

In fact, Johnson said at the news conference that he planned to use his celebrity to help educate people about AIDS and the virus that causes it.

Johnson, 32, said that he felt fine and that he did not have any symptoms of AIDS. Displaying his trademark cheerfulness and positive attitude, he said he was looking forward to a long life off the court.

"Life is going to go on for me, and I'm going to be a happy man," he said. "When your back is against the wall, you have to come out swinging. I'm going to go on, going to be there, going to have fun."

Johnson did not say how he became infected with the virus, which usually is transmitted through sexual intercourse or intravenous drug use. But he did say that he wanted young people "to understand that safe sex is the way to go."

"I think sometimes we think, 'Well, only gay people can get it. It's not going to happen to me.' And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson," he said.

Johnson said he called his best friends in basketball, including Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and former coach Pat Riley, to tell them. He told his current teammates in the Lakers dressing room before the news conference.

At Madison Square Garden in New York, Riley, who coached Johnson with the Lakers and now coaches the New York Knicks, asked for a moment of silence before the Knicks' game with the Orlando Magic last night and led the players and crowd in the Lord's Prayer.

Johnson's announcement brings to a close a career that spanned two college seasons at Michigan State University and 12 seasons with the Lakers, who drafted him in 1979.

During his years as a versatile point guard in Los Angeles, he revolutionized the position with no-look passes and baseline-to-baseline rushes. He had an uncanny sense of when to shoot and when to give up the ball. His dazzling skills earned him the nickname that for most fans long ago replaced his given name, Earvin.

He leaves as one of the most popular players in NBA history. His endorsement income -- an estimated $9 million a year -- dwarfed his Lakers salary of $3.1 million.

Johnson had not played during the first three games of this season, complaining of flu-like systems that sapped his strength and caused him to lose weight. The Lakers' doctor, Dr. Michael Mellman, said the illness was not connected with the HIV virus.

Johnson was married in September to Earletha "Cookie" Kelley. He said at the news conference yesterday that his wife had tested negative for the AIDS virus. "A part of my life is gone, but my wife is healthy, and that's great," he said.

He said he was looking forward to speaking out about AIDS and how it can be prevented, and his immediate disclosure suggested that the force of his personality could be a major catalyst for AIDS awareness and prevention efforts.

Dr. Mellman said Johnson should be "not only commended, but held as a modern-day hero" for speaking publicly about his condition.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, who was at the news conference, said the league would work with Johnson in his AIDS-education efforts.

Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a prominent AIDS researcher, said Johnson's forthright disclosure was extremely courageous and would do more to help shatter misconceptions about the disease than any previous disclosure by other celebrities.

"Magic Johnson is an idol," Dr. Gottlieb said in an interview with KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. "No one coming down with AIDS except perhaps George Bush would have more impact on this epidemic."

Dr. Mellman emphasized that Johnson remained in good health but that the rigors of professional basketball could weaken him, leaving him no choice but to stop playing.

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