TV Reviews : ‘Conversation’: Magic Moment

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Having NBA great Magic Johnson talk to preteens about AIDS and HIV sounds like a worthy public-service idea: Kids politely asking Magic how he feels, Magic giving them some basic facts and flashing that all-encompassing Magic smile to warm us and make us a little sad, too.

But “A Conversation With Magic” (at 8 tonight on Nickelodeon) is unexpected.

The intimate, unscripted give-and-take between Magic, host Linda Ellerbee and a group of concerned, compassionate kids, not only challenges those who would withhold such information from minors, but also serves as a demonstration of conscience.

Ellerbee minces no words with her tart intro. “You have a right to know about these things,” she tells viewers. “You don’t go to heaven if you die dumb.”


Magic, relaxed and attentive, treats each child as an equal, describing his devastation at learning he was HIV positive and how difficult it was to tell his wife. He stresses his No. 1 defense: a positive attitude.

He and Ellerbee offer some facts, including Ellerbee’s matter-of-fact condom demonstration. She uses the term “safer sex,” not “safe sex,” and again acknowledges critics of such information by stressing that it doesn’t mean kids are being schooled to “rush out and have sex.” A rap song enumerates all the ways you cannot get AIDS.

The program will be too frank for some, not enough for others. For some, it’ll be too exclusive--the word gay is mentioned only to say it’s a mistake to think of AIDS as a “gay disease.”

But the heart of the discussion turns out to be how we treat people with AIDS. Ellerbee springs a surprise: Two of the children are HIV positive.

The first worries that friends won’t play with her when they find out. The second bursts out, “I just want people to know we’re just normal people,” and begins to cry. Children give her comforting pats; Magic takes her hand, then speaks to viewers with poignant dignity. “What we need is just love and support. We just want our friends to hang out with us like they used to do, just have fun. . . . “

Ellerbee drives it home. “Civilization will survive AIDS,” she says. “How we behave to one another during this crisis may tell us a lot about whether, as a civilization, we ought to survive.”