Should Magic play? Let's risk an answer

The question is legitimate. You don't have to line up with the yahoos when asking it. This doesn't have to be a political-correctness litmus test.

The question is simply this: Should Magic Johnson be back on a basketball court?


He's going to be there Sunday, in Orlando, for all to see. When Johnson steps onto the court to play in the NBA All-Star Game, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

What a phenomenal story. It was an act of love as much as anything else that prompted fans to vote Johnson to the All-Star team even though he had retired. You can imagine that, years ago, if the process had been in place, they would have done the same for a dying Lou Gehrig.


But there would have been a difference. And we all know what it is.

There's a risk -- and we can argue, and should argue, about how small -- that Johnson, who is HIV-positive, could somehow infect another player. There are scenarios, including a Johnson elbow into someone else's mouth, teeth breaking skin, blood mixing with saliva, infection passed along. Is that possible?

The doctors are, for the most part, pretty clear on the subject. The operative word to describe the chance of transmitting the infection on a basketball court seems to be infinitesimal, which means literally too small to measure. One doctor said a football player had a better chance of dying by running into a goal post. Of course, there was the Australian doctor, since shouted down, who warned that Johnson shouldn't play in the Olympics.

If the risk is minimal, how minimal is sufficiently minimal?

You must understand that Johnson doesn't simply want to play in this game. He has made clear he expects to play in the Olympics. And although Johnson hasn't said it yet publicly, those who know him say he would love to play for the Lakers in the NBA playoffs this season. He practices every day. He consults with doctors. If it is determined that he can play without putting his life expectancy at great risk, he will play again. The game, as much as any infection, is in his blood.

Some NBA players are worried by this. Can you blame them? Would you be worried? They wonder if we can believe the doctors. We are asked to believe them implicitly, the same doctors who tell us that the chance of a dentist passing along the virus is not very great, and yet we know the story of Kimberly Bergalis and others.

Of course, fear is often a byproduct of ignorance. But the problem is that everyone is still somewhat ignorant about this as-yet-incurable plague.

There are other questions worth considering. Those who play contact sports bring risks to the court. Actually, they, like any of us, can die on the way to the event. There is a far greater chance of dying in a car crash than in contracting the AIDS virus on a basketball court. Athletes also die, or are paralyzed, on the playing fields. You remember Mike Utley, for starters. Certainly, it is not uncommon for boxers to suffer serious and even fatal injuries. Jockeys, too.


It is not impossible that other performers at the NBA All-Star Game could be HIV-positive. And when it comes to the Olympics, it is statistically certain that some, apart from Johnson, are HIV-positive, whether or not they are aware of their condition. AIDS is, by any standard, an epidemic in much of Africa, as an example. Do we test all the athletes? And do we stop at tests for HIV? Do we test for all communicable diseases? How do we determine how dangerous a disease must be before we ban the participant? How do we judge acceptable risk?

There are other issues. It seems obvious that, to the greatest extent possible, we should not ostracize people who have either AIDS or the virus that causes it. The disease is nearly always transmitted either during sexual activity or by sharing an intravenous needle. All the medical evidence says you can't get AIDS by bumping into someone or by shaking his hand.

Johnson is a symbol for all who have AIDS and the AIDS virus. By the light of his famous smile, Johnson has helped to remove the disease from the shadows. He has legitimized what has been for many a shameful condition.

Can we afford to deny him?

There is risk in everything. Life is risk. And the best available medical minds say that, in this case, the risk is virtually no risk at all. That's the information Johnson has, or he wouldn't play. It's the information the NBA has, or it wouldn't allow him. It's the information we have, and to ignore it would be to confer second-class citizenship onto a group of people who are already caught in a life-and-death struggle.

Come Sunday, Johnson will play. He'll hug Larry Bird, who will hug him back. And, with a catch in our throats, we'll cheer for him. To cheer for Johnson will be to celebrate the humanity in us all.