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Life After Death
Jack McCallum
August 20, 2001
Magic Johnson has pulled off one of the great comebacks in sports history, and it's got nothing to do with basketball
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August 20, 2001

Life After Death

Magic Johnson has pulled off one of the great comebacks in sports history, and it's got nothing to do with basketball

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"They took so much from me," Magic says, pushing around a last forkful of whole-wheat pancakes at a Venice caf� after a workout at Gold's. "The basketball, the commercials, the love I had for the game. It was tough, and I'm not a person who thinks much about 'tough.' I was pissed off, even though I never said I was pissed off and never showed it. I figured I would play five, six more years. When I came back the second time [in '95], no, I wasn't the same player. But had I been able to continue all that while, I would've been."

He takes a sip of fruit juice. Magic eats deliberately, polite bites of food, small sips of drink. He's always done it that way. When he was a player, he had one nonnegotiable rule about autographs: He would not sign when he was eating.

"I quit for one reason and one reason only: I didn't want to ruin the game that Larry, Michael and I had helped build back up," he says. "I would never let someone drive me out. I'm not built that way. But the controversy was hurting the game. Quitting was the right tiling to do, but it hurt."

He cleans his plate, smiles and continues: "What made it easier was that I had something to do. Man, I can't think of how guys make it when they leave this game early and don't have something to fall back on. But I had business. If I hadn't, my guess is I would've fought more to stay in basketball, and that might've been a mistake."

He's asked if his premature retirement and HIV status motivated him to become more successful in business. "Most definitely," he answers. "I got turned on when people said, It's all over for Magic. I wanted to show them I wasn't going away."

A 553-WORD item in a June 5, 1981, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weekly report described the deaths of five young Los Angeles men, "all active homosexuals," from a rare parasitic lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. In the two decades since, 22 million people have died of AIDS. About 438,000 of those deaths occurred in the U.S. Originally called GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency, AIDS is recognized as one of the worst plagues in history. About 36 million people have HIV, 25 million of them in Africa, about eight million in other underdeveloped nations in Asia and India. The majority will develop full-blown AIDS and die. "The cycle of despair in those countries is hard to eradicate," says Daar, the L.A. AIDS specialist. "The disease is out of control. Drugs and funds are limited. So victims think, Why should I get tested for a disease that will cause discrimination against me and that I'll probably die from anyway?"

Magic is one of an estimated 900,000 Americans infected with HIV, one third of whom don't know they have it because they haven't been tested. About 320,000 of those 900,000 have developed AIDS. Largely because of protease inhibitors, more HIV-infected Americans are living longer. "The most important aspect of the Magic Johnson story," says Daar, "is that he is not an anomaly." Ten years ago about 40,000 Americans per year were dying of AIDS. That number is now about 15,000.

The bad news is that about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. contract the disease, a rate that has stayed fairly constant for 10 years. With all those new cases, the disease will keep spreading, or at least never abate, no matter how large the long-term non-progressor population gets. "People think AIDS is over, and that feeling is as prevalent in the gay community as anywhere," says Phil Meyer, a 45-year-old HIV-positive social worker who works for AIDS causes in and around Los Angeles. "There's a feeling that Well, it's not around or If I get it, I'm not going to die from it. People are looking better than ever. Look at Magic Johnson."

Over the years, dozens of Meyers's friends have died, including his longtime lover, and in an attempt to keep their memories alive, he never crosses their names out of his address book. "People think the news about HIV is good, but it's not good," says Meyer. "People are still dying. Lately I've seen a rash of people I've been acquainted with who were doing really well, good lab results, all that, and—boom—they crash and die."

Daar says a major factor in the new cases is that young gay men think that there's a cure. "Or they see all these healthy HIV people and think it's no big deal taking medicine a couple of times a day."

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