It's Magic back on the court

The return of Earvin Johnson to basketball signals a change in Aids awareness
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A sporting injustice has been put right. Millions of people around the world, infected with the late 20th century's equivalent of leprosy, have been given new hope of leading a normal life and of being able to do what they want to do. Last but not least, one of the most hypnotically appealing athletes of recent decades is back on his rightful stage. Not bad for a single, run-of-the-mill basketball game.

Of course, what happened in south central Los Angeles on Tuesday evening was anything but an ordinary mid-season NBA fixture; rather, it was the sort of comeback story that even the dream peddlers of Tinsel Town might have had qualms about putting on the silver screen. For after four years of exile, Earvin "Magic" Johnson was back on a basketball court in the yellow and blue strip of the LA Lakers making - well, magic.

Dry statistics will tell future generations that the Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors 128-118, and that Johnsonscored 19 points. But they will never convey the sheer joy that permeated the sell-out crowd at the Great Western Forum, where $30 tickets were fetching $1,000 before the game. Nor can they catch the man himself at the press conference afterwards - that old loping way of talking, the huge halogen smile and the sheer disbelief in his eyes: "I never thought I'd be back. You go out there and you just say, ooohhh man..."

Basketball players are not supposed to make comebacks at 36, especially not after having been forced from the sport when they were diagnosed with the Aids virus. Johnson was the first household-name athlete known to have tested HIV-positive when he first bowed out in November 1991. Only afterwards was it revealed that the late Wimbledon champion, Arthur Ashe, had contracted the disease through a contaminated blood transfusion, and double Olympic diving gold medallist Greg Louganis confessed he had known he carried the virus when he gashed his head during the finals of the 1988 games in Seoul.

America still loved Magic, the man who, almost singlehanded, in the Eighties made basketball a mega-sport. It even forgave him the countless extramarital sexual encounters, of which one had caused his predicament. Subtly, though, it turned him into a pariah. When he led the US "dream team" in the 1992 Olympics, there were attempts to ostracise him. In perfect condition despite the infection, Johnson wanted to play in the following NBA season. But his colleagues would not have him, fearful not only of catching the disease but of a guilt by association - maybe they shared the same girls. Now attitudes to Aids are changing.

Johnson, of course, should never have been kept away from the game. Apart from one claimed incident in an amateur football game in Italy about which researchers are sceptical, there is not a single case of the Aids virus being transmitted through contact in a sporting contest. The odds of an NBA player catching it after a scrape with Johnson have been put at more than 8 billion to one.

"What really got me was how, in the very first minute I was on court, the guys were coming after me," Johnson said of his instant readmission to the rough and tumble of major league professional sport. And why not? As one of his Golden State opponents noted afterwards, "The NBA players are smart enough to know you get the virus from unprotected sex, and we're not going to have unprotected sex on the basketball court."

In the population at large, too, that point has been taken and the spread of Aids in the US does seem gradually to be slowing. But Johnson's comeback provides Aids researchers with an opportunity to monitor the effects of strenuous physical activity on the progress of the disease. Johnson's health has been consistently excellent since he began treatment with the AZT drug in 1991, even though his 6ft 9in frame has gained an extra 27lb. His diet, physical fitness and sleep pattern are a doctor's dream, and most specialists believe the two or three games a week NBA schedule should not have any adverse effect. Indeed, as one said yesterday, for Magic Johnson "the real risk is a heart attack".

Meanwhile, for millions who are HIV-positive there is the simple inspiration of watching one of their number just doing his job.