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Magic Shockwaves: From the Ghetto to Wall Street

November 9, 1991

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In a single, stunning revelation, Magic Johnson seared AIDS awareness onto public consciousness like nobody before him - from ghetto playgrounds to Wall Street to Capitol Hill and beyond.

AIDS hot lines lit up and activists were reinvigorated Friday, a day after the National Basketball Association star’s disclosure that he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and was retiring.

″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.

″I didn’t think it would happen to him, he’s such a big, strong guy,″ 19- year-old Darrel Mance said during a break from a one-on-one game in Boston’s Mattapan section.

’It makes me think four, five times about using a condom. I’ll protect myself even more now,″ said Mance’s opponent, Jerry Smith, also 19.

Activists said the 6-foot-9 Los Angeles Laker with the million-dollar grin became the perfect ambassador in the effort to raise understanding, compassion and money for people with AIDS and those, like Johnson, who are infected with the AIDS-causing virus.

Johnson made his first appearance in his new crusade Friday night on Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show, urging the national TV audience to practice safe sex and not be frightened by people who have AIDS.

″We don’t have to run from it. We don’t have to be ashamed of it,″ Johnson said. ″You don’t have to run from me like, ‘Oh-oh, here comes Magic.’

The 32-year-old Johnson is an international star, idolized by everyone from rich movie stars who sit at courtside at The Forum to inner-city youths who try to mimic his moves on asphalt playground courts. ″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.″

″This is a big breakthrough,″ said Bobby Esmond, a patient at the nation’s second-largest AIDS hospice in Chicago.

But some expressed doubts that even a person of Johnson’s stature could change decision-makers in Washington and get more money and better coordination for AIDS treatment and research.

″President Bush’s attitude has been so callous for so long I’m not sure what it would take″ to change his views, said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.

Bush, speaking to reporters in Rome, called Johnson a hero. He defended his efforts to combat AIDS, but added, ″I can’t say I’ve done enough. Of course I haven’t.″

In Washington, Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from Los Angeles, said the Congressional Black Caucus would try to restore funding for groups formed to educate minority communities about AIDS prevention.

″Magic Johnson has alerted America in a way none of us could have imagined doing ourselves,″ she said.

Johnson’s announcement was felt across the country and overseas. Many American newspapers ran banner headlines and page after page of coverage. The story received nearly equal treatment in some other countries, including Japan and Israel. In Spain, the daily El Pais had two pages on ″The Magic Man: A Living Legend and a Myth in World Sport.″

In Germany, the news agency SID wrote: ″Earvin Johnson’s declaration, which in America received as many headlines and as much broadcast time as the beginning of the Gulf War, has done more for those who suffer with him than all previous efforts.″

At AIDS clinics and hot line services the effects were also seen. The hot line at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta - which normally gets about 3,000 telephone calls daily - got 40,000 between 5 p.m. and midnight Thursday, and the crush continued Friday, CDC spokesman Kent Taylor said.

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.

Some AIDS hot lines reported a rise in condom sales. And the stock of Trojan maker Carter Wallace Inc. leaped $8 at the opening of the New York Stock Exchange. It was up $3.25 at the day’s end.

Activists said that Johnson, who intends to campaign for AIDS awareness and prevention, will likely do most for young people, whose feelings of invulnerability have made them a difficult group to crack.

″It certainly will be a message to much of the youth,″ said Terrence Zealand, executive director of the AIDS Resource Foundation for Children. ″I hope that as they emulate his jump shot and passing ability they would emulate his courage.″

There were signs that Johnson’s promise to campaign on behalf of AIDS sufferers would galvanize others in sports to do the same.

″He said yesterday that he’s going to be a spokesman for the HIV virus and try to tell kids that it can happen to anyone,″ said Michael Jordan, probably the only basketball player of equal fame. ″And as a friend of his and as a player in the NBA, I think I’m obligated as much as he is to do the same.″

Johnson also will be able to get a strong message through to blacks, whose population has been disproportionately struck by AIDS, activists said.

Gerald Lenoir, executive director of the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS, said his education and referral organization started getting more calls from people wanting information on testing and treatment.

″In the African-American community it means that there is going to be a greater amount of awareness, particularly among African-American youth,″ said Lenoir. ″Magic has saved thousands of lives and maybe even millions of lives.″

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