Few in mainstream America recoiled in horror when AIDS seemed restricted to the gay community and IV drug users. Magic Johnson changed all that yesterday. Too late for too many. But maybe in time to save countless others.
The disease has claimed nearly 2,500 lives in Maryland since 1981, but for too many of us, it took Johnson's shocking disclosure of testing positive for the AIDS virus to bring the tragedy into sharp focus once and for all.
Granted, that's small consolation to the families of those already dead. But for those who counsel men and women in Johnson's condition, those who fight the stigmas and prejudices surrounding AIDS, hope is where you find it.
Yesterday hope surfaced in Los Angeles. Magic Johnson announced his retirement, then enlisted in the cause. The last time the sports world was kicked this hard in the stomach, it was mourning Len Bias. Magic would have none of that.
Indeed, he turned this saddest of days into a virtual pep rally. Unlike Bias, he's still alive, could be for quite some time. Rest assured, Magic won't waste these years. He recognized immediately the need to step forward, to serve. It has always been his way.
"Of course, I'm not happy anybody is infected," said Andy Rose, a social worker for the Baltimore City Health Department. "But I feel really hopeful that somebody has the guts to use it as an opportunity to educate and advocate, to save other people's lives.
"One of the real plagues of this epidemic has been the 'Us vs. Them' mentality -- the thinking it's always someone else, always someone you can't identify with or relate to.Whenever someone people know and respect comes forward, it puts a dent in that."
tTC Indeed, it is Rose's fervent desire that as a spokesman, Magic will relay the importance not just of prevention, but early intervention. "You can live, and live well, for a long time," said Rose, who deals with HIV-positive individuals every day at two city-run clinics.
Just look around the corner: The Rev. Harry Holfelder, chairman of the AIDS Interfaith Network of Central Maryland, said one network member has been HIV-positive for eight years. Two members of his church, First and Franklin Street Presbyterian, have been HIV-positive for six.
Both Rose and Holfelder have worked in the AIDS trenches since the mid-'80s, preaching compassion for a condition often met with scorn. They could be angry it took a celebrity like Johnson to finally jolt the public consciousness. Instead, they seem almost relieved.
"He's kind of a symbol of where the disease is now," Holfelder said. "Very clearly, the disease has spread to the heterosexual community. It's going to have to learn to promote safe sex as much as the gay community has learned to promote safe sex.
"I talk about two mentalities. Inside the Beltway -- in the city -- people know HIV is a part of modern life. But outside the Beltway, people perceive it as a disease of three groups: People of color, IV drug users and gay people. They think, 'Because we live out here in the suburbs, it doesn't affect us.' "
That notion was always misplaced, for one life is as precious as another. But according to Holfelder, even religious leaders engaged in "judgmental theology rather than compassionate theology." That, along with a desire to support the gay community, is the reason his Interfaith Network formed six years ago.
Of course, medical experts predicted the HIV virus would spread to the American mainstream, and with Johnson it cuts right to the core. Not only is he a shining star of a sports league popular worldwide, he's a walking billboard for the nation's leading products, a flourishing tycoon with his own Pepsi distributorship.
So much seemed wrong yesterday, so much out of place. Yet there was Magic, flashing his big smile in a televised news conference. There was Magic, melting our hearts all over again, comforting us in his time of greatest need. "I think you just have to come out swinging," he said. "And I'm swinging."
The task now is to make his a noble fight. Rose said the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985 made a "tremendous difference." But to some, it was actually a joking matter. No one will dare joke about Magic Johnson. It's everyone now, you understand?
"I've been around it long enough to know we've had temporary bursts [of interest], then it falls back," Holfelder said. "That still leaves the nitty-gritty: How do we communicate the disease? How do we make people aware of it? How do we teach people to either practice safe sex or abstain?"
These are the questions Magic Johnson began addressing yesterday. Once his destiny was to help save the NBA. Now it's to help the world grasp HIV. In so many ways, his sacrifice seems utterly pointless. But in so many ways, it's anything but.