By Benita Alexander Lorenzo Benet
November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

In a searing instant, the public face of the most dread disease of our day was indelibly altered, and the knowledge flashed across the nation the way news of a loved one’s death spreads through families. One of the first to hear that Magic Johnson had tested positive for the AIDS virus was Greta Dart, his fifth grade teacher back home in Lansing, Mich. “His life seemed so perfect,” she said, biting her lip to hold back the tears. “It should have had a dream ending.”

Most Americans are not gay men, and most do not take drugs intravenously. Nor do they spend their days in contemplation of those who are and do. Thus the celebrity heroes of AIDS have not been the customary victims of the insidious virus, but rather the startling exceptions: the aging Hollywood star no longer capable of guarding his secret life; the spirited boy from Indiana who contracted the disease from a blood transfusion; the delicate young woman from Florida whose life was stolen on a visit to the dentist. The gallery of famous exceptions must now include the proud, graceful Magic, who, in 12 seasons as one of the finest professional basketball players ever, led the Los Angeles Lakers to five National Basketball Association championships. More significantly, he is an avowed heterosexual who says he got the disease through straight sex.

His performance at the Nov. 7 news conference that he called to disclose his illness—and his retirement from basketball—was extraordinary for its self-possession, dignity and transcendent good humor. The man is not known as Magic for nothing. “I just want to say that I’ll miss playing,” said Magic, “and will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus. I want [kids] to understand that safe sex is the way to go. Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, or that it’s not going to happen to me. Here I am. And I’m saying it can happen to anybody, even Magic Johnson.”

At once there were questions: Could Magic be gay? Some people would feel safer if that were true, but Magic was not to extend that kind of comfort. “I have never had a homosexual encounter. Never,” Johnson, 32, wrote in the Nov. 18 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Married Sept. 14 to Earletha “Cookie” Kelly, also 32, who is eight weeks pregnant with his baby and has thus far tested negative, Johnson told doctors he believed he became infected by the AIDS virus “from messing around with too many women.”

Of the nearly 200,000 Americans diagnosed with AIDS, just 5.6 percent are thought to have been heterosexually infected, and significantly fewer are men infected by women. Johnson’s declaration that he is one of these was an alarm bell. Calls to AIDS hotlines increased 20-fold in some cities, with almost every caller asking about heterosexual transmission. On Nov. 11 President Bush asked Magic to join the 15-member National Commission on AIDS.

Earvin Johnson’s career as an AIDS spokesman might not have begun so soon. He had never thought to be tested for AIDS, but a blood test was required by an insurance company for a policy taken out on him by the Lakers. Surprisingly the policy was rejected, and on Oct. 25 Magic learned why: He was HIV positive. On Nov. 6 the test results were confirmed. A Laker team physician, Michael Mellman, advised Magic to quit basketball, since the strain of the game could impair his immune system. Magic, who had already told Cookie and his parents, called his close friends—NBA stars Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas, former Laker coach Pat Riley and Arsenio Hall—late that evening.

By noon the next day, rumors about Magic were already circulating on local radio and TV, and when he walked into the Laker locker room at just after 2 P.M., he was met by 11 distraught teammates. “Breaking the news to my teammates was the most emotional experience of this entire ordeal,” Johnson wrote in SI. “Everyone was crying, including me.”

“He told us we had to stay strong for him,” said teammate Byron Scott in the L.A. Times. “The way he handled it shows the type of person he is, but it didn’t make it any easier for the people who love him.”

There were lots of those in Lansing, Johnson’s hometown. It was Christine Johnson, 56, Earvin’s mother, who gave Greta Dart the news. Greta and her husband, Jim, Magic’s first basketball instructor, were his unofficial godparents. “He was one of seven at home,” says Jim, “and with his dad working late, outplace was like a sanctuary to him.” The Darts tell how Earvin used to mow their lawn, bring pants over for Greta to hem, bug them for rides and invite himself to dinner whenever he didn’t I like the food at home. “We couldn’t help but fall in love with him,” says Greta.

Across town, Dale Beard, 31, the best man at Johnson’s wedding, tells how Magic called him the day before the news conference. Noting that Magic had missed the first three Laker games, Beard, a hotel security guard, jokingly asked if he was planning on sitting out the season. Magic quietly told him the news.

Dale says he talked with Magic for 45 minutes and that his old friend showed a little of the fear he has chosen not to reveal in public. “He said he knows there will be a time when he’s down and he’ll need someone. I told him, ‘Hey, I’m here. I always will be.’ ”

According to Stan Martin, 51, the man who gave Earvin his first teenage job at a Quality Dairy store, the whole town is torn and confused. “On the one hand,” says Martin, “there was a lot of pride in how well he handled himself [on TV]. But on the other, there’s this complete sense of loss and not knowing how to help him or the family.”

This is not to say that the Johnson family is asking for help. Quite the contrary. Lingering outside the Union Missionary Baptist Church—his son was the subject of the day’s sermon—Earvin Johnson Sr., 57. spoke and laughed with friends, as he does every Sunday. “We’re okay, we’re doing all right, we’re strong,” he said, politely declining to talk with a visitor about his son.

Some of Magic’s closest friends have adopted a similar stance. “It’s not like he’s died or anything,” says Detroit Piston star Isiah Thomas. “We look at him as a guy who’s injured. His career in basketball is over, but his life goes on. He woke up this morning. He ate breakfast. He’s going to go have lunch. We’ve just lost our friend as a competitor on the basketball court. We haven’t lost our friend as a human being.”

Adds Greta Dart: “It’s just Magic who’s retiring. Earvin will still be there.”

BENITA ALEXANDER in Lansing, LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles and bureau reports