Fear, not reason, rejects Magic's shot

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 03, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The message of Magic Johnson's return to the NBA was that an HIV-positive person can function in normal life. The message of his latest retirement is that too many people are afraid to grasp that fact.

Medical experts remain convinced that the risk of Johnson infecting another player is almost nonexistent. But no matter how strongly they make their case, the question always returns to one simple emotion:

Fear.

Johnson retired not because of the risk, but the perception of the risk. Karl Malone pointing to scabs and cuts on his body as if they were HIV magnets. Other players worrying about becoming "one in a million" when the actual odds might be less.

The concern is understandable. So much confusion surrounds the AIDS virus. So much is unknown. But if Johnson's return to basketball was a major step toward the education of an uninformed public, his second retirement is a haunting reminder of the misconceptions that still exist.

"It's a symbol of how far we as a nation have to go," said Dr. Alfred Saah, chief of infectious disease epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Magic Johnson's decision is a warning to all of us about the stigmas that occur with HIV, the adversity one has to deal with.

"The message is, 'We're in trouble.' If even a man of Magic Johnson's stature feels this kind of adversity, you can imagine what it must be like for people who don't enjoy his standing in this country or the world."

The sad part is, the NBA Players Association tried to intervene before the pressure on Johnson mounted, developing a health-education program in conjunction with another Hopkins official, Dr. Michael P. Johnson.

Saah, Johnson and others personally addressed every NBA team, distributing a brochure stating that HIV "is not spread through contact during sports activities," convincing the vast majority of players that the risk was negligible.

Still, it wasn't enough.

"There's no reason not to play basketball with Magic Johnson," Dr. Johnson said. "But fear is something that is not always responsive to reason. It's hard to get at people's fears in a short period of time."

Those fears cut so deep, they're frequently misdirected. An estimated 1 million Americans -- or one in 250 -- are HIV-positive. Surely the rate among NBA players, a group of 324 males primarily between the ages of 21 and 30, is even higher. It's entirely possible Johnson isn't the only player carrying the virus.

But, as the only known case, Johnson is the one who suffers. The answer isn't mandatory testing, not in a nation that values its citizens' right to privacy. The answer lies someplace more profound, someplace else.

As Saah put it, "We need a greater level of emotional understanding, not intellectual understanding." People with RTC plagues have been vilified throughout the ages. Johnson is charismatic and beloved, a national hero. If he can't evoke compassion, who can?

It's a question that strikes at the heart of our existence, a question that in Saah's view is "a manifestation of how frail we are as human beings." Saah didn't mean that as a cold-hearted criticism. A doctor's reasoned analysis often means little when confronted by powerful human emotions.

Karl Malone wondered how he'd react if Magic Johnson stormed down the lane in the final seconds of a one-point game. Who wouldn't? The disease we're talking about is fatal. A doctor says the virus would not be effectively transmitted if Johnson bled into another player's open wound. The average person responds, "Prove it."

What's so discouraging to the doctors is that the debate misses the point. "The issue is not whether you get HIV playing sports or from a toilet seat," Saah said. "The real issue is unprotected sexual intercourse, shooting drugs notwithstanding. That's where the risk is in the United States. It's not in playing basketball."

That said, the people who have fought this disease every day for more than a decade won't be discouraged. Teachers don't educate simply by presenting facts, they help students reach a deeper level of understanding. It takes repetition, explanation, patience, time.

Unfortunately, Johnson no longer will be as visible a part of that effort. He cited concern that the controversy would disrupt his family, the league, the cause. No doubt the comments by Malone and the others hurt him. So did recent allegations that he contracted HIV from another man, allegations he vehemently denied.

Those who know Johnson best say above all he wants to be loved.

If only, in this charged climate, that were possible.

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