ORLANDO, Fla. -- Isiah Thomas says it will be business as usual when he takes the court today to begin another NBA All-Star Game matched up against his friend Magic Johnson.
"I'll greet him the same way I've always greeted him -- with a hug and a kiss," said Thomas, a Detroit Pistons guard.
Then, Thomas said, he will try to beat the daylights out of $H Johnson on the court.
But this NBA All-Star Game is like no other game that has ever been played. Earvin "Magic" Johnson has the virus that causes AIDS. He hasn't played a game this season. The former Los Angeles Lakers superstar was voted to the All-Star Game by the fans and will start for the Western Conference, but his participation is the subject of intense scrutiny and debate.
Whether Johnson poses a health risk for the other players is one issue, certainly the main one.
A team of experts, led by Dr. David Rogers, vice chairman of the National Commission on AIDS, sought to allay those fears Friday. But Johnson was the most eloquent.
"Different people have their own opinion about the situation, and they have a right to it," Johnson said, "but come Sunday, I'm going to be out there. I have to be out there for myself and for a lot of people, whether they have a disease or a handicap or whatever, to let them see they can carry on and don't have to feel different.
"I was telling my wife the other day that it's going to be fun getting back out there, but I also can't start thinking crazy, like maybe I should play next week, too. I have to keep a grip on things. This will be a great event for me because it might be my last game. So my VCR will be working. I get a chance to play with all the superstars one more time all in one game.
"And so I can pop it in for my son or daughter, who will be born soon, and say, 'Hey, this is Dad's last game, and he got a chance to say goodbye.' Because I haven't had a chance to say goodbye to all the fans, and this is my way of saying goodbye."
This might not be Johnson's last game, either. He plans to play on the U.S. Olympic team this summer and hasn't closed the door completely on a return to the NBA.
Johnson's fellow All-Stars lined up solidly behind him Friday.
"Both the NBA and Magic's doctors have given him the OK to play, so I'm looking forward to playing against him in the All-Star Game and with him in the Olympics," said New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing.
"It's just like any other topic where everyone has their own opinion," said Golden State's Chris Mullin. "I think that's fine as well, but as far as I am concerned, I'm glad he's here. I'm not concerned at all. I'm sure the medical staff here will take all the appropriate measures, whatever they may be."
Commissioner David Stern said the league was moving to implement an international rule for today's game, under which any player who suffers a cut or begins to bleed will be removed from the game. He denied a published report that the league had asked team trainers to refrain from using rubber gloves while working on players because it looks bad.
Rogers, who is on the staff at Cornell University Hospital, went over the means by which a person could contract the human immunodeficiency virus.
"You can get it through sex, by receiving a transfusion of infected blood or by the birth process. Period," Rogers said. "It is not transmitted by casual contact, even of the most intimate sort, including contact on an athletic playing field."
According to Rogers, Johnson's participation will be a boon to the education process concerning AIDS.
"It will be an absolutely magnificent message that people with HIV and AIDS are just like the rest of us," Rogers said. "They can continue to live their lives at no risk to others. He'll help dissolve the fear and the stigma associated with the disease. It will be a splendid worldwide message."
The reservations attributed to some players certainly dissolved Friday. Cleveland's Mark Price, earlier quoted as having some trepidation, denied that stance.
L "If I had any reservations, I wouldn't be here," Price said.
Philadelphia forward Charles Barkley skated away from statements he made earlier this week that Johnson's participation would overshadow more deserving players.
"I never said he shouldn't play or that I was afraid to play against him," Barkley said. "What we should be doing is trying to educate ourselves and the public about AIDS. Maybe this will make more people think about Joe Doughnutman down the street from you who has AIDS, and treat them with a little more