A couple months ago, Olden Polynice was playing basketball in LA with a bunch of guys, and one of them was Magic Johnson. There was contact. Magic cut his hand. He was bleeding. They stopped the game.

“Oooh!” the others teased, as Magic went for a Band-Aid. “He’s bleeding! Look out! Don’t wanna catch nothing! Hahahaha!”

They laughed. Magic laughed. He fastened the Band-Aid, and the game resumed. And nobody, according to Polynice, played him any differently, even though there is something in Magic’s blood that can kill you.

“We bumped him, took him to the hole, same as always,” Polynice said, at the Palace Thursday afternoon. “We muscled, we scratched, we played ball, you know?” These were guys such as Reggie Miller, Pooh Richardson, Shaquille O’Neal, Danny Manning, Duane Cooper, LaSalle Thompson, pro players, all of them, so I guess not everyone in the NBA is afraid of rubbing Magic the wrong way.

Yet, as we speak, this is still the top story, The Issue Of The Week: Pro basketball lifts its curtain tonight, and Magic Johnson is watching from the seats, with no intention of lacing up his sneakers again. “I’m disappointed,” he said, in retiring this week, citing other players’ fears of his AIDS virus. “I’m disappointed to be walking away from the game. And I’m disappointed in peoples’ attitudes.”

The NBA begins with an ending.

A very un-Magical ending.

And the question is, is it necessary?

Proof of the ignorance

“No way,” said Polynice, the Pistons’ new center, who played part of the summer with Johnson in LA. “It’s ignorance. Just ignorance. Doctors will tell you that. You don’t bleed in, you bleed out.

“Look at me. Here, you want me to open this cut for you?”

He squeezed a scab on his finger and, slowly, blood began to ooze.

“See? Look at me. I’m bleeding out. I’m not bleeding inwards, I’m bleeding out, OK?”

The small crowd around him nodded, like scientists agreeing on a microscope slide. And yet, elsewhere, around the country, people were waving a news story about an Italian soccer player who butted heads with an HIV-positive player a few years ago, both of them bled, and two months later, the previously clean player tested positive.

“See?” people say. “This proves it.”

Well. Let’s admit this much. There is nothing proven here. There is no proof you can catch AIDS on a basketball court. This is no proof you can’t. Hey, there’s no proof this is why Magic is retiring. Why? Because he said it is? Come on. If we’ve learned anything in this presidential election week, it’s that you can’t always believe what you hear, no matter how many talk shows you hear it on.

But if no one really knows about open sores and virus exchange, we can still be sure of this: The next player who tests HIV positive will do the obvious.

He will keep it to himself.

Why? Simple. If Magic Johnson, with all his charisma and NBA power, couldn’t handle the negative reaction, how could a less popular player? His peers would criticize far more quickly. He would not be given a Johnson-like
$14-million salary, whether he plays or not.

“The next guy is not gonna admit it — he is not going to admit it!” Polynice agreed. “The next guy who tests positive will say, ‘Aw man (cough), I just got a cold, man.’ “

Gallows humor. Sad, but true.

Players must take stock Bill Clinton was right about one thing. This is a time for taking stock of ourselves, for seeing who we are, and who we want to be.

You, as American workers, may soon be asked to line up on folks like Magic Johnson, much the way NBA players are doing now. Yea or nay? Do you work with them or not? Karl Malone, who played with Magic on the U.S. Olympic team, says, “You can’t tell me we’re not at risk.” Gerald Wilkins of the Cavs said Johnson “could be dangerous to us all.”

Polynice says they’re crazy.

Me? I say paranoia is far too easy, and compassion far too rare. So the precedent set by this disturbs me. The bottom line: We need more information.

“Think about this for a minute,” Polynice said. “The life- styles that we NBA players live? I’m sure Magic is not the only one (who is HIV-positive). So you might be playing against someone who has the disease, and you don’t even know it. What are you gonna do, not play against anybody?”

Good question. What’s the answer?

Magic suggests it was leave the game, not shake things up. That is a sad finish. He had the courage to admit his affliction and to continue despite it.

Could it be that the final chapter on Magic’s legacy will read like this:
“He could beat his own fear. He just couldn’t beat everyone else’s.”

Polynice shook his head. “You know, over the summer, when he got cut, we stopped the game and waited. We just weren’t gonna play without Magic.”

They will now.

The season starts tonight.

How very strange this world has become.

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