And now it’s time to treat everyone like Earvin (Magic) Johnson. That’s the real lesson of these terrible last few days. The eruption of love, support and sympathy for the stricken NBA star was a wonderful thing to see. But when you think about it, of all the patients in the world with the AIDS virus, Magic may need this the least. He is extremely wealthy, can get the finest doctors, and will be honored and loved no matter how sick, heaven forbid, he gets.

What about the rest?

Who loves them today?

If I were an AIDS patient watching the world since 6 p.m. Thursday, when news that Johnson was retiring because he had the virus literally burned across the nation, lighting the sky, erasing all other stories — the Detroit TV stations actually reported no other news that night — I might cry a bittersweet tear.

Where was everybody, I might wonder, when I got sick?

The truth is AIDS did not begin with Magic and it won’t end with him either. If we lived in parts of Africa, I doubt we would have time to notice Thursday’s news; we’d be too busy tending to the dying members of our families. If we lived in India, word that a basketball player had been stricken might raise only a sigh, because how much can sadness is left for one when hundreds of thousands are falling all around you?

As Americans, we were squeamishly innocent about AIDS before Thursday. We turned from its glare, swept it into a corner, dismissed it as a curse for other people, weirdos, gays, drug addicts, promiscuous bar-hoppers. Even when some big Hollywood celebrity began losing weight and was photographed looking gaunt and pale, we told ourselves “Well, it’s a shame, but Hollywood people, you know how they are . . . “

This is not Hollywood. This is not India.

This is right outside your door.

Can you hear it?
“Nightline” vs. Arsenio

Two images burn in my mind this morning. Both, not surprisingly, come from the TV screen.

The first was Friday night, when Magic Johnson bopped on stage with Arsenio Hall, who whooped and waved in his normal idiotic fashion, as the cheering audience rose to its feet.

“I’m still gonna be the same old Earvin, happy-go-lucky, living life to its fullest and having a good time,” Magic said, smiling. It was a feel-good program, and you walked away believing the man is special enough to beat this thing.

Then, the other image, on ABC’s “Nightline” in the wee hours Friday morning. Among Ted Koppel’s five guests — four of whom were healthy and had only praise and support for Johnson — was one man from an AIDS organization who is also afflicted with the virus, a disturbing fellow named Kramer. He was not as young or as handsome as Magic. He had short white hair, glasses, and a frightening expression, like the butler in a haunted house. This is what Kramer said — not even said, but yelled — at the camera:

“Magic Johnson is going to die! I am going to die! We are all going to die! There are 40 million potential victims out there. This is not an epidemic, Mr. Koppel, this is a plague!”

There was no band playing, and nobody clapped. Time for us to get involved

Somewhere between those two images, I hope, lies the clue to our next step. We cannot stop with the smiles on the Arsenio show, making us feel good, because this is beyond feeling good, and it is beyond sending letters to LA, telling Magic you still love him. That is a fine thing to do, sure, but let’s be honest: It’s easy to love Magic. He is famous, heroic; he has a smile that would melt chocolate off a Milky Way.

It may not be as easy to love the AIDS patient down the street, the gay man with the thin, bony face, the pale woman dressed in now-baggy clothes, the victims who gather outside city halls with signs asking for support. But they deserve your emotions, too.

One of the most famous books about the AIDS crisis was entitled “And The Band Played On,” suggesting that, for all the horror, the healthy part of the world basically ignored this disease. From now on, that is unforgivable, and I am not just talking about education here. Yes, education is essential — you cannot believe how many teenagers still think a condom is something somebody else wears — but we have been trying for years to teach teens about birth control, and even that has been slow.

Meantime, people are dying. We need money, right now, to fight this disease, to research it, to try experimental cures, as they are doing in European countries that are far ahead of us. We need money, and not just your contributions; we need money from our government, which has been all too content to have voters think of AIDS as a gay disease, since it meant less pressure to spend funding on a cure.

What we don’t need is a cut in the budget for the Centers for Disease Control, which thanks to our administration is what will happen next year. What we don’t need is George Bush conveniently admitting he “hasn’t done enough” on the AIDS issue, after the Magic story breaks and Bush sees it could hurt his re-election chances if he says anything less.

What we don’t need are people like Sen. Jesse Helms, who, in his disgusting fashion, actually supported legislation that forbade federal funding for AIDS education if anything in the material was “offensive.” Like what, Jesse? The word “gay”? Or “sex”? How about the word “dead”? That’s the one we should find most offensive.

Magic Johnson was unlucky, and now he is being brave; we need to be the latter to avoid being the former. If you truly believe in what Magic says, and you want to prove it, you find time for other victims, the ones without any championship rings. You don’t treat them like lepers. You give them your time; you give them a kind word.

And then you get on the phone and behind the typewriter and you get out in the streets and you don’t stop badgering your lawmakers until they appropriate fewer dollars to their own special interests and a lot more toward saving the world from this horror that takes no names, only corpses, and is getting closer to your doorstep every minute.

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