Another Year of Magic

October 19, 1992

Earvin "Magic" Johnson says he belongs on the basketball court and no one who has watched his wizardry would dispute him. His return to the Los Angeles Lakers, announced last month, will restore some luster that was missing from professional basketball last season. It will also help to remove the stigma that HIV infection often creates.

There are still many people who regard the virus that causes AIDS as the modern-day equivalent of that ancient scourge of leprosy. But the sight of Magic Johnson's irrepressible smile, his abundant enthusiasm and his dazzling skills will be vivid reminders that behind the statistics we often read on HIV and AIDS are not faceless lepers but real people with lives that aren't over yet.

Few sports are as grueling as professional basketball. Everyone involved in Mr. Johnson's return to the Lakers admits this will be a play-it-as-it-goes proposition. Because of his infection, Magic will play in only 50 to 60 of the 82 games scheduled.

No one knows what effect a highly competitive professional sport will have on an otherwise healthy athlete who has contracted the virus. But most AIDS experts see no harm in his return to the court, and some suggest that playing may actually help him, especially in the mental battle against the disease. As for fears that he could infect other players, AIDS experts say there is virtually no risk.

Mr. Johnson's announcement came only days after his resignation from the National Commission on AIDS. President Bush had appointed him to the commission last November, soon after the athlete had publicly disclosed his infection. In resigning, Mr. Johnson claimed the Bush administration had "dropped the ball" on the AIDS crisis.

Partisans will argue that point, but much of the "family values" talk at the Republican National Convention contained thinly veiled criticisms of homosexuals, a group most Americans still identify with the AIDS epidemic. The fact that Magic Johnson almost surely contracted the infection through heterosexual contact indicates that AIDS has spread far beyond any single identifiable group and that pointing fingers at any group is no way to deal with a deadly threat to public health.

Magic Johnson acknowledges he faces a shortened life span, but no one can predict how short his life will be. With his return to the Lakers, he is simply choosing to do what he loves -- and to live to the fullest in the time he has left.

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