'We're all vulnerable'

November 09, 1991|By Don Markus Sam Davis and Jeff Fletcher of The Sun's Sports staff, and Keith Paul of The Howard County Sun contributed to this article.

Lydell Henry wore his favorite T-shirt to school yesterday. He had worn it many times before, and hardly anyone noticed in the halls of Dunbar High School. But this was different, because a famous basketball player with a recognizable nickname was in another kind of spotlight.

"Everyone's talking about Magic," said Lydell, a freshman whose friends call him Sleepy.

Thursday's revelation by Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson that he had tested positive for the AIDS virus was on the minds of many Baltimore-area students yesterday.

"I was shocked. Now I know it can happen to anyone," said Kendall Johnson, a senior football player at Dundalk High School. "It took a lot of guts for him to stand up in front on the world and admit that he had the AIDS virus. I take my hat off to him."

Keith Booth, a junior at Dunbar and one of the country's top high school basketball players, said, "When I first heard the news, I couldn't believe it, but with a star like Magic Johnson getting it, it's the same as other stars like Rock Hudson or Liberace -- AIDS doesn't discriminate."

"At first I felt like I wanted to cry," said Dimicra Grant, a freshman at Dunbar. "It just didn't seem like it could happen to him. If he had said it before, it would have gone in one ear and out the other, but now when he says it, you have to listen and pay more attention. It could happen to you. You never know."

"To me, it was like a god being struck down," said Larry Fisher, a senior at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia.

Those old enough to remember said they had a similar feeling more than five years ago when they heard that University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias had died of an overdose of cocaine. But most students think, and administrators hope, that Mr. Johnson's announcement will have an even greater impact.

Brenda Thompson, the nurse practitioner at Southern High School's health center, said that has the case, especially with the school's boys. She said "about six or seven" of them came into her office yesterday morning asking for information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the use of condoms.

"It's made a difference talking about condoms," said Ms. Thompson. "Heretofore, it [AIDS] was a little bit abstract. This certainly gives us the punch for more formal education. We shouldn't be so hesitant to talk about it."

But such hesitancy apparently is still there for teachers and students alike. Most of the students interviewed said the schools teach very little about AIDS. One, Dundalk High School sophomore Rich Venker, said, "I don't think I ever heard it mentioned -- maybe once."

Mr. Johnson -- whose age and status, as well as reports yesterday that he contracted the disease through unprotected heterosexual intercourse, contradicts most stereotypes of HIV-positive or AIDS victims -- came forward shortly after learning of his infection and promised to become a spokesman in the fight against AIDS.

"This will probably have more impact than if the president had it, because of the audience he will reach," said Pete Pompey, athletic director, basketball coach and football coach at Dunbar. "And this will make parents of 9- and 10-year-olds answer questions when the little ones want to know why Magic isn't playing anymore."

"I was really touched that he felt brave enough to come forward so soon after he learned that he had been infected, to speak out and influence and educate others about it," said Dr. Michelle Carter, administrator of the city's adolescent health programs at eight area schools. "He has a very important role to play in helping Americans understand the significance of this illness, and learning the difference between testing positive for the HIV virus and having AIDS."

It is too early to predict what effect Mr. Johnson's disclosure will have on AIDS awareness and prevention programs. Tracey Post, an assistant director of education for Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said recently that announced statewide budget cuts probably will prevent more extensive programs.

But Mr. Johnson's announcement might be a catalyst for educating the public, especially adolescents. "I think it's sad when anyone's infected," Ms. Post said. "It's gotten to the point where it takes a role model like Magic Johnson to get the message out."

At Towson High School yesterday, talk of Mr. Johnson dominated the hallways.

"It came up in a lot of conversations," said Mary Beth Reichert, a sophomore. "It was mostly the students. The teachers didn't really want to talk about it."

One who did, English teacher Rick Noble, said, "I clarified with them. The radio and television people seemed to be putting words in Magic's mouth. They seemed to be giving reasons why he got the disease. Magic didn't say how he got it. I tried to let the students know we're all vulnerable."

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