Teen trying to shoot down AIDS fear Oklahoma schools won't play his basketball team

March 08, 1993|By The Kansas City Star

LONE WOLF, Okla. -- The most-feared high school basketball player in Oklahoma this year was a freshman, 14 years old, 5 feet tall and 79 pounds.

Philip Tepe didn't rebound or block shots. He scored about six points a game, usually playing only a few minutes. He didn't fight or talk trash. He looked like any skinny little freshman on the court.

But Philip has AIDS. And that scares a lot of folks. In southwest Oklahoma this winter, about half the teams on the Lone Wolf schedule canceled games rather than face Philip.

"I don't know why people won't play against me; I think they're just being stupid," Philip said as he tucked a hospital bedsheet around his skinny chest. As a precaution, he was in Children's Hospital of Oklahoma several days last week because his temperature had risen to 104 degrees.

Philip is shy, so he looks to his Mom to back him up.

"It's not like they can get the virus from Phil by playing basketball," Dorecia Tepe said. "If AIDS spread that easily, we'd all have it by now."

But many in the area don't agree.

"The doctors say the odds of getting AIDS on the basketball court are about the same of getting hit twice by lightning," said Clifford Macklin, superintendent of the Erick School District, which canceled games with Lone Wolf. "Of course, our parents point out that might be so, but when it's thundering they don't run outside to see if they get hit."

During a November game against Granite High School, about seven miles through cotton fields from Lone Wolf, two Granite players refused to step on the court. They had heard a Lone Wolf player had AIDS.

The rumor spread, fanned by someone who had distributed information on the possible transmission of AIDS by mosquitoes.

Students at other schools worried. Lone Wolf students were harassed if they wore school shirts in other towns.

The Tepe family stepped forward and confirmed the rumor.

Pretty soon, people couldn't keep track of who had forfeited games to Lone Wolf in junior high and senior high. At least Mangum, Erick, Granite, Eldorado, Mountain View-Gotebo, Duke, Dill City and Navajo canceled games.

Lone Wolf is a declining farming community of 500 residents; for every open shop, five abandoned buildings stand. The 200-student school is the center of town activities.

The canceled games were a tough blow, but few in town got angry at Philip. AIDS education is big in Lone Wolf, and Philip is considered not a risk but a friend in trouble. Most fault the ignorance of other towns.

The snub of Lone Wolf athletics hasn't been limited to boys' basketball.

Girls' basketball games were canceled this year because people in other towns feared the Lone Wolf girls' casual contact with Philip. The Lone Wolf Coyotes can only schedule five games this spring in baseball, where Philip is a backup third baseman. And superintendents and parents throughout the region aren't convinced they would play against Philip next year either.

In Mangum, four boys were willing to play. In Granite, three boys said yes. In most places, parents were against their children's playing Lone Wolf.

"What's going on with this boy, it's tragic, and I can't see stopping him from playing," said Johnny Murray, whose son plays for Granite. "But that doesn't mean my boy should risk infection playing against him. As far as I'm concerned, the final verdict on AIDS is not in yet. There are too many questions out there still to take risks."

Which made for a short season.

Maybe the reaction was no surprise, however. Magic Johnson was the first American athlete to publicly announce both an HIV infection and plans to continue competing. Medical and sports authorities say Philip was probably the second.

Dick Stickle of the National Federation of State High School Associations said there are important differences between Philip and Magic.

"I look at Magic, he's got everything going for him: $14 million, a great family, fame, amazing talent," he said. "And Magic didn't feel he could stand the pressure. It really makes me have a great deal of respect for Philip. That he can stand in, take the pressure, says something about how brave he is."

Mr. Stickle is executive director of the federation's TARGET program, which in April will bring the Tepe family to Kansas City for a panel discussion on AIDS and athletics.

Jerry Paul Tepe, Philip's older brother and an all-state high school football player this year, said Philip tried not to let the controversy get to him.

"It did bother him, though," Jerry Paul said. "He'd come home at night upset. People won't say much near me, but I know what they're saying about Philip, and it bothers me, too."

That Philip has faced so much pressure says something about public reaction to AIDS, said Sharon Lee, a Kansas City doctor who works with HIV patients.

She said the risks to opposing players were minimal, if even that. She said Magic or Philip would have had to receive a wound causing severe bleeding at the same time another player received a similar injury before there could be a risk.

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