Retirement signals Magic's acceptance of HIV, experts say

November 03, 1992|By Michele Himmelberg | Michele Himmelberg,Orange County (Calif.) Register

Magic Johnson could handle a basketball like it was an extension of himself. But he and basketball were separated yesterday by the controversies of living with HIV.

Johnson retired from the NBA, for the second time in less than a year, and several psychologists said he appears to be moving through the typical stages of someone with a terminal disease.

First comes denial, then fits of depression or anger and eventually acceptance.

"What's happening is the denial has worn away," said Dr. Thomas Tutko, a sports psychologist at San Jose State University. "And he's being confronted with a reality he might not be ready for. Players won't be liking him as much. He doesn't like to be disliked.

"There's more concern about what happens with him and his family. And there's a remote chance of some guilt; that maybe he would infect someone."

Doctors have said Johnson, who is HIV-positive, would have an "infinitesimally" small chance of infecting another player on the court. But several NBA players have expressed fear about being infected, and there's a growing concern that the game might be compromised if players back away from guarding Magic.

That controversy, which has been building since Johnson played in the All-Star Game and Barcelona Olympics, prompted his retirement.

"Going back and playing again was a form of denial," Tutko said. "Now, in some ways he's hurt and disappointed about the reaction of other players. But mixed with this, too, is an awareness and acceptance that he has [HIV] and he has to change his lifestyle."

Johnson's announcement last year that he is infected with the virus that causes AIDS was accompanied by comments such as "I'll beat it." That represents the "wishful thinking" of patients who learn they have cancer or a life-threatening disease, said Dr. Louis Regal, a management psychologist in Huntington Beach, Calif.

"Now, with these controversies happening, he becomes more logical," Regal said. "It's the stage of coming back to reality. He's accepting his mortality and is beginning to put his focus elsewhere -- fundamental things like friends and family. He's also beginning to avoid the controversial, life-shortening activities that he was involved in."

The strengths that helped Johnson succeed on the court might have confounded him this past year, Regal said.

"Superstars are intensely competitive, focused and they learn to revel in the limelight of fame," he said. "This can blind athletes such as Magic to certain realities of life. He's not blinded by those as he was at first."

Regal cautioned that nobody can know the primary motives or exact rationale behind Johnson's decision until he explains them himself.

"Who knows what he's feeling, or what his physicians have said?" Regal said.

That it took a year for NBA personnel to voice strong objections is a sign of Magic's "unparalleled stature," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

"People were reluctant to voice their concerns [about him playing], and that speaks to the respect they had for Magic," Lapchick said. "His actions now show what respect he has for them, and for the league."

Johnson has enjoyed nearly universal popularity since he entered the league in 1979.

"The magic of Johnson is that everybody liked him and he liked being liked," said Jerre Lender, a psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif., who specializes in trauma. "But now some people are afraid of him. He's made some enemies. He might have trouble handling that.

"He's finding out he can't come back and make [life] just like it was before. It's not possible, and I imagine he's feeling real depressed. It's hard to say if he's accepting it. But he needs to re-establish an identity."

Lon Rosen, Magic's agent, said Johnson will spend more time on AIDS awareness projects and will plan a world basketball tour.

"I don't see him just retiring, but maybe taking a whole new approach to dealing with HIV and AIDS issues," Tutko said. "Such as educating young people about the disease. The next stage [in trauma] is a process of negotiations. If I do this, then that. Then comes a real acceptance that life will be a lot different than what he's had in the past."

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