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Magic's activity dispelling myths

When Magic Johnson announced he had contracted the HIV virus, he vowed to go on "living for a long time." Now he's making good on that promise with a dazzling All-Star Game performance and plans to play in the Summer Olympics.

Some people are concerned Johnson is hastening his illness by playing basketball, but others say he's educating the public that people infected by the virus that causes AIDS don't just roll over and die.

"He's exploded a lot of myths about this disease. One is that you get the AIDS virus and it's an immediate death sentence," said Anthony Sprauve, spokesman for AIDS Project Los Angeles.

By continuing to play, Johnson provides "an important message: life goes on, and, as is true for many Americans, you work and live with your diseases and disabilities, you don't let them take over your life," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Minnesota's Biomedical Ethics Center.

People can go two to 15 years between contracting the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus and actually developing AIDS symptoms, with seven years about average. Patients usually die two or three years after symptoms appear.

Studies suggest moderate exercise may delay AIDS symptoms and death, but exhaustion may weaken the immune system, said Arthur LaPerriere, a psychologist and exercise physiologist at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

So if Johnson does play in the Summer Games at Barcelona, Spain, "There may be a certain degree of risk, but we just don't know," he said.

As a result, Johnson would be wise to "avoid exhaustive exercise and limit his activity," LaPerriere said. "Maybe not play a full game, maybe play for five to 10 minutes, then take a rest period, then play a few minutes."

Johnson announced Nov. 7 he was retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers because he was infected by HIV, although he hadn't yet developed AIDS. The illness eventually causes death by crippling the body's disease-fighting immune system.

Johnson's doctors had advised him that the regular exhaustion of playing professional basketball might impair his immune system and hasten the onset of AIDS.

So it surprised some people that Johnson decided to play in the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 9 _ when he was named Most Valuable Player after scoring 25 points _ and in the Olympics. He also left the possibility of an eventual NBA comeback.

Some NBA players and a doctor with Australia's Olympic basketball team raised fears Johnson might spread the deadly virus to other players if they collided, suffered cuts and exchanged blood.

But players are far more likely to die in a plane crash on the way to a game than to catch the virus by competing against Johnson, LaPerriere said.

Johnson's decision to play is "something he needs to think about with his wife, doctor, minister and friends, but not you and me," Caplan said.

He said public debate might be warranted if there was evidence Johnson got bad medical advice that encouraged him to play despite a known, severe health risk, but "I can't imagine that Magic Johnson doesn't have good advice."