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Magic Johnson's Career Ended by HIV-Positive Test : Sports: The announcement stuns his public. The Lakers star emphasizes that he does not have AIDS. 'I plan to go on living for a long time,' he says.

November 08, 1991|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an announcement that stunned the nation, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, the brilliant guard who was the marquee name for the Lakers and the National Basketball Assn. for 12 years, retired Thursday, saying he had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS.

Johnson, 32, was characteristically upbeat when he made the announcement at a packed press conference at the Forum in Inglewood.

Flashing his trademark smile, he stressed that while he is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, he has not developed AIDS. Johnson said he intends to remain active in basketball off the court and that he will become a spokesman for AIDS prevention.

"I plan to go on living for a long time. . . ," he said.

"I'm going to be a spokesman for the HIV virus. I want young people to realize they can practice safe sex. Sometimes you're a little naive about it and you think something like that can never happen to you. It has happened but I'm going to deal with it. My life will go on. Life is going to go on and I'll be a happy man.

". . . It's another challenge, another chapter in my life. My back is against the wall. I think you just have to come out swinging and I'm swinging."

In another development, Johnson's agent, Lon Rosen, said that Johnson's wife, Cookie, is seven weeks pregnant. Doctors, however, have said that because she has tested negative, the expectation is that the baby will not be infected with the virus.

Johnson led the Lakers to five NBA championships in his 12 years with the team but his contagious personality and famous smile, his extraordinary poise and maturity stamped him as a once-in-a-generation figure whose popularity transcended the game.

The self-described shy youngster from Lansing, Mich., is one of the biggest stars in a city rife with celebrity. He is a role model to youngsters, a pal of movie stars and entertainment executives, a promoter of charity and a one-man worldwide commercial enterprise he calls "Magic Inc." His fame is international. Last month, crowds in Paris chanted his name when the Lakers played two exhibition games there.

His announcement riveted the attention of Southern California Thursday and reverberated across the nation.

"I'm devastated. All the wind went out of my lungs when I heard," Steve Lowe, 46, a lawyer in the mid-Wilshire district, said in a sentiment echoed across the Southland. "Why him ? He's been the best part of living in Los Angeles in the '80s."

All three television networks led their evening news programs with the announcement. At Madison Square Garden in New York, Johnson's longtime coach, Pat Riley, now coach of the New York Knicks, asked the crowd for a moment of silence while he recited the Lord's Prayer.

AIDS experts predicted that Johnson's forthright discussion of his condition would raise consciousness about the disease and make a difference in the efforts to conquer it.

"I hope that Americans everywhere will understand better today that AIDS is not a remote disease that only strikes 'someone else,' " Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement. "Everyone must be aware that the AIDS epidemic can reach them. I am very heartened by the announcement that in the months and years ahead, Magic Johnson will help carry a life-saving message to young people across our nation."

At the Forum, Laker physician Michael Mellman said, "We have witnessed . . . a courageous act by a very special person. He is not compelled by any legal description or legal requirement to disclose what he has disclosed today. . . .

"Because of his presence and potential impact on society, with a situation that is not only serious but from which we are all at risk, I think he should not only be commended but held as a modern-day hero.

"This is a very, very special person and a very special admission."

Johnson said he learned of his infection through an examination for an insurance policy, and that his wife of seven weeks, Cookie Kelly, has tested negatively for the virus. He did not discuss how he might have contracted the virus.

Many people infected with HIV live many years with few serious effects on their health. The average period between infection with the human immunodeficiency virus and diagnosis of full-blown AIDS is now 10 years, according to experts. After that diagnosis, new treatments have extended the average patient's survival to several years.

"Earvin Johnson has been infected with the HIV virus," Mellman said. "He does not have AIDS. . . . There's no immediate effect on his life other than we have advised him to avoid those activities which can further impair his immune system, which is playing professional basketball."

Mellman said Johnson is not on medication but that the issue is being discussed. The typical drugs used to treat HIV infection are AZT and DDI, both of which can have side effects that could impair Johnson's ability to play basketball.

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