With one Magic smile, star athlete gives reason to hope for humanity, and a cure

February 09, 1996|By Mike Littwin

MAGIC JOHNSON is smiling down at me from the cover of Time.

He's happy. I'm happy. Everyone's happy. Magic Johnson is playing basketball again and it's clearly the feel-good story of the year.

I take the magazine to the counter, and the clerk, looking at Magic's beaming countenance, smiles at me. I smile back at her. If we weren't complete strangers, we might hug. It's a Kodak moment.

"Isn't that great?" she says.

I allow that it is.

She smiles again. What could I do? I smile right back.

On the Newsweek cover, Magic is also showing a mouthful of teeth (he does, after all, have the most famous smile in sports history). In this cover pose, he is ripping off his suit, a la Superman, to reveal a Los Angeles Lakers uniform.

Are you amazed by this celebration? You should be. Let's consider the circumstances.

The most celebrated carrier of the virus that causes AIDS has re-entered mainstream society, and, for a brief moment, actually knocks Steve Forbes out of the headlines.

He's not sickly. He radiates health. In fact, if you believe Newsweek, he's Super HIVman.

He's not dangerous, unless he's got the ball in the middle of the floor on the fast break. According to a poll, 74 percent of Americans approve of Johnson's return to the National Basketball Association. Not only that, 79 percent said they had nothing to fear from associating with someone who had AIDS, unless, of course, there was an exchange of body fluids.

Once again, it's safe for him to be Magic. To say this is startling news is to greatly understate the case.

Let's just take a look at Magic's recent life and see how startling. Maybe you remember the shocking day in 1991 when he announced he was HIV positive and announced simultaneously that he was quitting basketball.

Of course, he had to quit.

He was going to die, wasn't he? And if he wasn't going to die immediately, he'd soon be too weak to compete.

And, besides, now that he was HIV positive, wasn't it his duty to spend the rest of his days educating the rest of us about AIDS, as if we didn't have some responsibility in this ourselves?

The story grew worse.

In a year, Magic understood he wasn't going to die, at least not right away and maybe not for a long time. He figured he had more to do with his life than educate other people. He decided that he wouldn't let AIDS define him. He was a basketball player, possibly the best who ever played. He wanted to keep playing.

And so he decided to come back, only there wasn't so much celebration then. Some NBA players loudly suggested he shouldn't. Some players worried they might get infected, even though doctors say you take a far greater risk driving to the game than from playing basketball with Magic Johnson.

But Johnson didn't want to go where he wasn't wanted. So, he quit again.

This time it hurt more.

You see, it wasn't the disease that beat him. It was people, some of them his so-called friends. Meanwhile, the many sponsors who used Magic to sell their products raced to see who could drop him first.

It was an up-close-and-personal lesson on the stigma of AIDS.

When Johnson first revealed was HIV positive, those who looked for any silver lining spoke of how important it was to put a human face on the disease, particularly a well-known and well-loved human face.

Take away the face, and you're left with the ugly rider to a bill just out of Congress that says the military must steamroll anyone who is HIV positive out of the service, regardless of any other health factors.

Put Magic's face on the disease, his smile on the disease, watch him play again, watch a 36-year-old man (ancient in the sports world) bring the enthusiasm of youth and the vitality of life to the arena, and the world can change.

In four years, the world has changed.

Many with HIV are living longer. There are new drugs (although very expensive and not available to many who need them) that seem to arrest the progress of the disease. There is hope.

Ask Magic himself whether he believes there will be a cure in time to help him. "In my heart," he says, "I do."

Many people are standing behind him. If you believe the polls, most of them will even stand next to him.

There's still prejudice, of course. And there's still fear. There are still those benighted folks who believe AIDS is God's revenge for some behavior or another.

But the lesson of Magic Johnson's return is that, at long last, there's some good news on AIDS. Why not smile?

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