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Magic's Decision to Play Continues to Spur Controversy : Pro basketball: Readers surveyed in Orlando are against his All-Star participation.

January 29, 1992|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Magic Johnson's appearance in the NBA All-Star game and the Summer Olympics has spurred varying opinions in the last 10 days, casting the onetime Laker great in a controversial light.

For instance:

--The Orlando Sentinel published a survey Jan. 19 in which 62% of its callers said they were against Johnson's playing in the All-Star game in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 9. The call-in survey received 4,751 calls, the largest response for any sports issue, a Sentinel editor said.

--Last Friday, eight newspapers combined to poll 132 NBA players, who overwhelmingly supported Johnson's appearance in the All-Star game, the Orange County Register reported.

--The Australian Basketball Federation on Tuesday sent William J. Hybl, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, an official apology because one of its team physicians had said last week that the Australians should boycott games in which Johnson might participate.

--Prince Alexandre de Merode, head of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission, said Tuesday that Johnson, who announced that he tested positive for an HIV infection Nov. 7, should play in the Barcelona Games because the "risk of contamination is extremely low."

The Orlando Sentinel's survey asked: "Should Magic Johnson play in the NBA All-Star game?" The newspaper reported that 2,941 responding said no, 1,810 yes.

Jim Grove, the deputy sports editor who wrote a story on the survey results, said that many of the respondents, selected at random to be interviewed after they had responded, said they voted no because they did not believe an inactive player should be allowed to play.

Grove said that some also were concerned about the possibility that Johnson could transmit an HIV infection to another player through physical conduct. Although AIDS experts have stressed the unlikelihood of such a circumstance--there has never been a documented case of AIDS being transmitted during a sporting event--the fear remains.

Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent, dismissed the reader survey Tuesday.

"The people want to see him or else they wouldn't have voted for him," Rosen said. "If the people didn't want to him to play, they would have voted for somebody else.

"It wasn't as though Earvin went around, city to city, saying, 'Vote for me.' He didn't campaign for this thing. He told the commissioner he didn't want to take somebody's spot. And the commissioner added another player."

Rosen said all the players he has talked to said they support Johnson's return to the game.

Of the 132 players polled last Friday, 96 said that Johnson should play, the Register reported. Eleven said no, and 25 had no comment. The newspapers surveyed 14 of the NBA's 27 teams, two days after an Australian physician had said that Johnson could spread the disease should he compete in the Summer Olympics.

The comments, which were supported by some members of the Australian basketball team, were summarily denounced by AIDS researchers and the international sporting community.

Dr. David Rogers, vice chairman of the National Commission on AIDS, expressed frustration over the incident in an interview last week.

"It's almost impossible to fight this kind of fear and ignorance," he said.

Rosen said that Johnson was braced for such reaction and is not affected by some of the remarks. Former teammates A.C. Green and Byron Scott reportedly said that Johnson should not play in the All-Star game because he essentially has retired. Johnson is on the Lakers' injured list.

Green told some reporters: "I think if a player's retired, that's the bottom line. They're retired from basketball. He shouldn't play (in the game) . . . he hasn't played all year. When he comes to practice and shows me he can beat me, that's when I think he should be on the All-Star team. If he can't, it's over."

Rosen said Green told him he was jesting when making the remarks, published in the Daily News of Los Angeles. A similar version of Green's quotes was published in the Register.

Rosen said he has not talked to Scott, the Laker guard who said: "If they vote Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) in, should he play? The way I see it, he is retired, and once you are retired, you are retired."

Rosen said most of the players who will compete in the All-Star game have told him they are excited to see Johnson play with them again.

Johnson received the second-highest vote total for a guard on the Western Conference team behind Portland's Clyde Drexler.

"If Earvin had decided or his doctors said OK, 'Go and play,' he'd be able to start playing in a week after training again," Rosen said. "He hasn't lost a step. He hasn't lost a shooting eye. So, there is no reason he shouldn't play. It's not as though the fans were forced to vote for him. They voted for him because they wanted to see him play."

Rosen said the players who were quoted anonymously as saying Johnson should not play were cowards for not identifying themselves.

"This is something he fully expected to happen sooner or later," Rosen said. "He knew exactly how to respond to it. It just proves how important education is, and Earvin is going to be able to make such an impact in the education process."

Prince Alexandre of the IOC said the AIDS issue was thoroughly discussed even before Johnson's announcement in November. The consensus was that risks were negligible, he said.

He said the opinion will not change at next week's IOC meeting just before the Winter Games in France. "I learned to my surprise that the question will come up again," Prince Alexandre told the Associated Press.

But Johnson was not surprised. Rosen said he expects other opinions to surface as well.

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