One day I was talking to a Virginia newspaper sports editor about Wilt Chamberlain's boastful claim in his new, self-adulatory book, "A View From Above," that he has had sex with 20,000 women during his lifetime, and the next day, Magic Johnson was retiring from basketball, having tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS.
Is there justice in this?
I don't know. None of us knows. We know Wilt Chamberlain is incredibly self-indulgent, irresponsible and shallow. All you have to do is read his two autobiographies and you'll be convinced of this assessment. But we don't really know Earvin "Magic" Johnson. We don't know the strength of his character or the depth of his intellect. All we know is his image, and now we know his pain.
If I were considering bedding down with "The Stilt," I told the editor a day before Mr. Johnson's stunning announcement, I would insist that he get one -- two -- maybe three -- blood tests over time. Since acquired immune deficiency syndrome became epidemic, many sexually active adults have started asking potential sexual partners to have their blood tested for the HIV and have offered to do the same. If you think such clinical details spoil "the mood," imagine what your mood would be like if a doctor gave you the news that Magic Johnson just received.
Just before his almost-certainly-fatal sexual encounter, did Magic Johnson think about a blood test? Did he think that he might be contracting a death sentence that he could pass along to his college sweetheart? Later on, did he divulge to Earletha "Cookie" Kelly, now his wife of two months, that he'd had sex with someone else so that she could decide whether she wanted to assume an unknown risk of being infected with AIDS? Was he even informed enough to recognize the risk?
I'm angry at Magic Johnson. I'm angry at him because he was stupid, not "naive," as he boyishly claimed at his press conference and the next night on buddy Arsenio Hall's show. He took an unnecessary chance, which, if it involved a prostitute, many of whom are drug abusers, was doubly stupid. I'm angry at him because he was ignorant of the risk, because he had his inflated head in the sand, ignorantly believing that AIDS can happen to the other guy -- the homosexual or the intravenous drug user -- but not to him, never to him, not to Magic.
I'm angry at him for deceiving other uninformed people by talking about AIDS as if it were just another basketball opponent: "I'm gonna beat this," he vowed.
I'm angry at him for not taking care of himself and for believing all of the media hype that created an image he could never be.
But most of all, I'm angry at him for causing his family, his friends, his fans, and himself so much pain. I'm angry at him because I care.
Where has Magic Johnson been for the past decade? Doesn't he read the newspapers? Hasn't he been hurt by all of the patches, all of the lost lives, stitched into the ever-expanding AIDS quilts? Isn't he aware that AIDS is quickly spreading in the heterosexual community? Only a fool could believe that AIDS discriminates on the basis of sexual preference.
On the other hand, the virus does discriminate in its mode of transmission: it is transmitted through sexual contact, usually through a man's seminal fluid; through contaminated needles or syringes shared by drug abusers; through infected blood or blood components; and from pregnant women to their fetuses. An HIV-positive heterosexual man is more likely to infect his female partner (18 to 20 times more likely) than an HIV-positive heterosexual woman is to infect hers.
Before Nov. 7, did Magic Johnson know any of this? Does he even know now?
During and since his press conference, Johnson has also bandied about the catch phrase, "safe sex," as if it were some sort of cure-all instead of the oxymoron that it is. If you think sexual intercourse with a condom is "safe," talk to a woman who's become pregnant when her partner used one. The only safe sex is no sex, and responsible adults know the value of that blood test I spoke about.
Getting kids to use condoms is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but before Magic, now 32 and no longer a kid, goes on the lecture circuit, I hope he does his homework. I hope he knows his medical science. I hope he understands that this "challenge" is much greater than a National Basketball Association championship or going one-on-one against Michael Jordan for millions of dollars and athletic kicks. Judging from his expressions and responses to date, I don't think he does. I don't think he "gets" it.
Many of you probably think I'm being too hard on Mr. Johnson, who has bravely accepted and confronted his fate -- or seemingly so. A basketball phenomenon, an athletic artist who almost single-handedly saved the NBA, Mr. Johnson also has been a personable, good-natured, cooperative and charitable man, always ready with a cheerful, impish and -- face it -- self-serving interview.
I've read the gushing tributes written by grieving, largely sycophantic sportswriters, and I, too, reacted to the news of Mr. Johnson's tragedy with choked emotions. My first thoughts were sympathetic ones. I cried. I don't want Magic Johnson or anyone else -- sports superstar or homeless drug addict -- to die of AIDS. But I'm smart enough to realize that real role models are created in homes, in schools and in other places where intimate relationships can be fostered, not in huge basketball arenas.
It is because I'm a woman, I think, that I feel anger toward Mr. Johnson. Beneath the outpouring of affection and sympathy that male sportswriters are expressing for Mr. Johnson, I sense the same old "boys will be boys" attitude that, once merely misguided, has become deadly.
Suppose Cookie Kelly and her unborn child -- she is seven weeks pregnant -- had become infected by the HIV, would people have thought less of Johnson? Would people have thought of him then as irresponsible, self-centered, immature, foolishly hedonistic, stupid, ignorant, perhaps even wrong? Drunks evoke laughter from people at parties until they kill someone on the way home. When are we Americans going to wake up to the perils of promiscuous sex?
Maybe Magic Johnson will prove to be an instrument of great good. Maybe he will deliver to Americans the AIDS message that so many medical and health professionals have been unable to deliver. Maybe he will educate himself about the disease and the state of AIDS drug research worldwide and in this country, and maybe he will use his money, power and influence to demand accountability from the U.S. government and to advocate more therapeutic experimentation. Maybe even Wilt Chamberlain, a big fan of Magic's, will think twice before he notches No. 20,001.
I hope so. Because I feel pretty damn bad right now for Magic and for the rest of us, and I'm not going to forget this heart-breaking waste in two or three weeks, as so many others will. I'm much too angry. And I really do care.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma is a Baltimore attorney and writer and a sports columnist for "The Harford Edition."