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Basketball Star Faces New Challenge of Educating Public on AIDS

November 9, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Magic Johnson, an inspiring basketball champion, bravely set out Friday to face a real-life challenge - confronting his own mortality and educating a nation on the dangers of AIDS.

The day after the Los Angeles Lakers superstar made the stunning announcement that he had tested HIV-positive, he already was making headway in his new endeavors, friends and experts said.

Johnson, who said he’s simply closing one chapter of his life and moving onto another, appeared on Arsenio Hall’s television talk show and began his personal campaign to promote safe sex. The audience gave him a two-minute standing ovation.

He confirmed that he was exposed to the virus through heterosexual sex. He didn’t elaborate. Johnson repeatedly spoke about the dangers of unprotected sexual intercourse, and he urged people to use condoms. ″Please put your thinking caps on and put your cap on down there,″ he said, gesturing below his belt.

He also disclosed that he offered to leave his new wife but that she adamantly refused.

The shock waves from Johnson’s announcement Thursday continued rippling from inner cities to Washington to Wall Street, where a leading condom maker’s stock surged.

Heightening the impact, some experts said, was the fact that Johnson was infected through heterosexual activity.

″Now people have to take it more seriously - have safe sex,″ said 12- year-old Shawanna Smith, a pupil at Intermediate School 147 in the New York’s Bronx borough.

In Rome, President Bush felt compelled to defend his administration’s stance on the disease, saying he’d didn’t like ″allegations that I don’t care.″

″If there’s more I can do to empathize, to make clear what AIDS is and what it isn’t, I want to go the extra mile,″ the president said, stressing that his administration has ″increased funding dramatically″ for AIDS research.

″I can’t say I’ve done enough,″ the president said. ″Of course I haven’t.″

Johnson’s public acknowledgment was applauded by AIDS activists.

″He probably saved thousands of lives just in that one act,″ said Fred Allemann, an HIV outreach specialist with the Cascade AIDS Project in Portland, Ore.

Johnson’s trademark smile and boyish enthusiasm made him an athlete whose fame transcended sports, someone adults and kids both could admire, and his vibrant personality makes him a beacon for AIDS awareness.

″I think sometimes we think, well, only gay people can get it, it’s not going to happen to me,″ Johnson said Thursday as he announced his retirement at age 32. ″And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody. Even me, Magic Johnson, it could happen to.″

Apparently, a lot of others quickly realized it could happen to them, too.

Callers flooded AIDS hot lines around the country, including one at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Between 5 p.m. and midnight Thursday, the CDC hot line - which normally gets about 3,000 telephone calls daily - received 40,000, said CDC spokesman Kent Taylor. He said most calls went unanswered in the crush, which continued Friday.

In Missouri, the volume of people coming in for AIDS tests doubled the morning after Johnson’s announcement, said Don Cuvo, manager of the Metropolitan AIDS program for the St. Louis Health Department.

″These people never thought they were at risk, but if somebody like Magic is at risk, they figured they may be, too,″ Cuvo said. ″I think Magic’s announcement shocked a lot of people. The phones are ringing off the hook.″

″We have found that it’s not until you know somebody with AIDS or who is HIV-positive that your attitudes change,″ said Mark Senak, director of client service of AIDS Project Los Angeles. ″Now everybody knows somebody who is HIV-positive.″

Athletes quickly joined Johnson in his educational campaign.

The Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan said he plans to speak out on behalf of AIDS awareness.

″I think this is an alarm clock for a lot of people,″ Jordan said. ″God did this for a reason and I think we should adhere to that and learn from it.″

Hornets’ guard Rex Chapman said he and his wife will join Johnson to encourage people to practice safe sex.

″Bridgette and I are donating $50,000 to any HIV virus research fund set up or designated by Magic,″ Chapman said. ″Magic is a lot of things to a lot of people and above all to me, he is a great friend.

″I hate that it takes something like this to make people more aware of this terrible virus that tragically affects thousands of Americans.″

Johnson said his wife of two months, Cookie Kelly, has tested negative for the virus. She is seven weeks pregnant, according to a Lakers’ spokesman.

S-11-08-91 2147EST

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