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The Lessons from the Story of Magic Johnson Can the Example of a Superstar Change Behavior?

A day or so after Earvin "Magic" Johnson disclosed that he has the AIDS virus, another professional basketball player saw a divine plan in the wrenching news.

"God makes these things happen for a reason," said James Donaldson of the Dallas Mavericks.

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The reason, Magic Johnson himself had suggested, was to carry a message to the world: everyone is vulnerable to AIDS, even those who are not intravenous drug users or homosexuals.

The player with the skills and the smile known 'round the basketball world had taken on a huge task. His message, of course, was anything but new, yet it had not been received and acted upon -- as his own situation made so clear. And there he was, walking from victim to savior.

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Kevin Johnson, who plays for the Phoenix Suns, said, "Maybe Earvin is capable of carrying that kind of burden . . . with all the smiles and all he has done, maybe God said he would be the only one capable of carrying the burden." But even for a star as super as Earvin Johnson, even for one as courageous and human and humble as he seems, the hope that he would bring long-term change in sexual behaviour was certainly questionable.

At the same time, some value probably does inhere in the courageous witness of any man or woman at any level caught in such a crushing turn of fate. Magic is honored now as a person of transcendant courage and generosity -- not simply as an athlete -- and various astute observers say the honor is deserved.

So, the search for rationality and something positive in the ashes of misfortune begins again. The reflex is understandable and not novel. Five years ago, when University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of "cocaine intoxication," his coach, Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, said, "We believe in the Lord. Whatever happens is in the Lord's plan."

During a memorial service for Mr. Bias at the university's basketball arena, Cole Field House, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said, "God sometimes uses our best people to get our attention. . . . If we had lost another plant, a lesser flower, we would not be here. But God chose a rose, a rose of our generation. Tonight," he said, "the children mourn. I hope they learn."

Have they learned about the fatal dangers of drugs?

What has been the impact of Len Bias's death in the place he lived, in Prince George's County, where the impact must surely have been the most devastating. Immediately after Mr. Bias died and the cause of death was certified, Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia said, "Len Bias's death will take a hell of a lot of the romance out of drug use in the peer group where it has all the acceptance it has."

Last week, Judge Femia was asked what the flow of cases in his court suggests today about the long term impact. What had actually been learned?

"Nothing," the judge said.

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That assessment comes from the bench, from a man who sees the results of drug-taking and selling every day. "As long as the press kept the story alive there was some impact," he said. "Kids said, 'Oh, yeah, that's terrible.' But how many changed their life styles? The average individual between 16 and 24 years of age today doesn't remember what happened. This community of users is a community of immature, very impatient people.

"All young people think they are invulnerable. My son told me the other day he wasn't going to work his ass off in life the way I did -- and then asked if he could borrow $10."

On a broader scale, some change has occurred in the nation's penchant for drug-taking -- from alcohol to crack and PCP. An Oct. 4 survey by the Partnership for a Drug Free America showed substantial increases in the anti-drug attitudes of young teenagers, members of society who are the most at-risk of damaging encounters with drugs.

The survey found a 52 percent decrease in experiments with marijuana since 1987, and a 69 percent decrease in trying cocaine. These children grew into their teen years after Len Bias died. They grew up with anti-drug messages on television, in newspapers, in classrooms and in their homes.

"It's paying off," says James E. Burke, chairman of Partnership for a Drug Free America. The Partnership, itself, has created 475 separate anti-drug messages and has received more than $1 billion in air time and space in print media for getting these messages to the target groups.

A lesson here, it would seem, is that the wave of emotion and sadness launched by Leonard Bias's death was effectively ridden by groups with money and political power. The U. S. Congress, driven directly by the fear generated among voters during summer Mr. Bias died, hurriedly approved huge sums of money to fight drugs; President Reagan, no fan of government programs, signed the bills. Questions arose later about how faithfully these financial commitments were kept, but some initial momentum was created.

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Lonise Bias, Leonard's mother, took her powerful messages about youth and drugs and self-worth on a national speaking tour that still continues.

All of these efforts and others end up in the chemistry of attitudinal change. Mr. Bias's death alone was powerful, an attention-grabber, no doubt. But changing attitudes and behavior took a continuing effort by people from Nancy Reagan to workers whose names will never be known.

Any progress is remarkable and welcome against the perverse and intractable power drugs have demonstrated.

Some users actually were encouraged to continue the pursuit of mind altering substances after Mr. Bias's death. Dr. David N. Nurco, then a researcher and specialist in deviant behavior at the University of Maryland, said five years ago, "When a heroin addict dies of an overdose, one of the reactions from the survivors is 'Where's that good stuff?' They don't run in fear. They run to get the stuff with a lot of strength."

On the streets of Washington and Prince George's County after Len Bias's death, the drug merchants claiming to have high-purity cocaine whispered, "Got that Len Bias. Got that Len Bias." The super star's name had become a marketing tool, not for sneakers or soft drinks, but for illegal drugs.

"Drug abuse," Dr. Nurco said then, "isn't going to be turned around until a lot more grains of sand are on the beach." A few more have fallen since then and, while the war has not been won, some progress apparently can be attributed to the synergism of celebrity death, money, incessant anti-drug messages among other things.

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Now comes Magic and AIDS education.

Dr. Alvin Thornton, a political scientist at Howard University, says the value of Mr. Johnson as a change agent could be important among some of the most vulnerable target groups. But that impact will be reduced if he does not also address root causes of destructive behavior. The ghetto needs more than condoms, he said. It needs realistic alternatives for kids who may be exposed to the anti-drug or anti-sex messages but see no reason to accept them.

A more thoroughgoing change in many areas of national life will require seeing beyond symptoms to causes, he said. Again, the Bias tragedy provided perspective and raised questions that went beyond drugs to the integrity of universities and the validity of big time college basketball.

The University of California at Berkeley sociologist Harry Edwards wondered five years ago how Mr. Bias could have been allowed to play basketball when he was hardly a student during his final semester.

"What was Len Bias doing at the University of Maryland with three Fs and two withdrawals? What was he doing on campus other than paying Lefty Driesell's salary and making the University of Maryland wealthy? Absolutely nothing. He was a hired gun."

Questions, messages on televisions, public funding, shock and the loss to basketball of charismatic human beings such as Magic appear to be important "grains of sand."

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So is the effort of courageous, anonymous Baltimore mothers holding a bake sale to finance their own neighborhood war on drugs. Theirs was a wise recognition that basketball players cannot be asked to solve our problems.


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