Once again in the spotlight on the basketball court, Magic Johnson is also finding himself in an uncomfortable position in another arena as he makes his return to the Lakers.
Johnson, the first known HIV-positive athlete, has been the subject of recent published reports on how he might have contracted the virus that causes AIDS. For the second time in two weeks Friday, a newspaper story suggested that he acquired the virus through homosexual behavior.
A story in New York’s Newsday, quoting an unidentified person close to Johnson, said the 33-year-old Laker guard has accused Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons of spreading a rumor that Johnson was bisexual.
"(Johnson) called him up and said, ‘I know you’ve been telling people that I’m gay,’ ” Newsday quoted its unidentified source as saying. “Isiah denied it.”
Thomas, one of Johnson’s closest friends until they had an apparent falling out several years ago, told Newsday sportswriter Jan Hubbard that he had not circulated such a rumor.
Another story that caused a stir when it appeared earlier this month in the Sporting News insinuated that Johnson was not telling the truth when he said his HIV was the result of heterosexual activity.
Dave Kindred, former columnist for the Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution-Journal and the National, writing in the Oct. 12 issue of the Sporting News, questioned Johnson’s veracity.
Johnson made the Thomas issue public Tuesday night when he told reporters at the Forum that the incident that has upset him the most since he announced his illness almost a year ago was that a player had been spreading a rumor that he was bisexual.
“A player has alluded that there was something funny going on,” Newsday quoted Johnson. “That’s how all this got started, basically. He ran to a few people and tried to insinuate that I was going both ways. These people called me up.”
Johnson told reporters before a Laker practice Friday morning in San Diego that he would not identify the person he says is spreading the rumor.
“I’ve already said what I wanted to say--I’m not going to name any names now,” said Johnson, who also said he has not spoken recently with Thomas.
“Somebody’s always got something to say,” Johnson said of the rumors. “They said it before the Olympics, they said it before the All-Star game. What difference is there now? You just deal with it and don’t let it disrupt you or get you down or frustrate you, which I don’t let it do.”
A three-time NBA most valuable player, Johnson has consistently maintained that he contracted the AIDS virus during heterosexual activity. Kindred questioned that.
“He said unprotected heterosexual sex did it,” Kindred wrote. “Numbers say that’s unlikely. One study says the odds are one in 500 even if a man uses no condom and his partner already has the virus. . . . A man is hundreds of times more likely to acquire HIV by homosexual contact or by using dirty hypodermic needles.
“It is forgivable for a man to hide such activity--if no one else is hurt by his behavior. But it is reprehensible if a man serving his self-interest helps create a frightening lie that causes research money to be diverted from more critical fields.”
Kindred did not cite the source of his figures.
According to Antonia C. Novello, surgeon general of the United States, a number of studies have indicated that an infected man is two to five times more likely to infect a woman than a woman is likely to infect a man. One study indicates that the risk is 20 times higher. The Centers for Disease Control say that 6% of those infected with HIV got it through heterosexual activity.
Johnson reacted angrily to Kindred’s column when asked his reaction the day Laker training camp opened in Honolulu two weeks ago.
“I’m just waiting on him,” Johnson said. “I sure hope he says something (more). Please, tell him to say something. Bring the information out front, please, so I can sue him. He won’t be writing for nobody else no more.”
Johnson again was asked about the Kindred column before Friday night’s exhibition against Sacramento at the Sports Arena in San Diego.
“People use me in this situation for themselves,” he said. “They have their own agenda and I have to deal with that.”
Johnson dealt with the issue of how he became HIV-positive in his fourth book, “My Life,” co-written with William Novak, to be published by Random House.
“I know how I got the virus,” he wrote. “That’s clear. But I don’t know who. I have never had a homosexual experience. I’m not gay or bisexual. If I were, I would say so. It’s not my style to hide or deny something like that. And it didn’t happen through sharing a needle because I’ve never done drugs.”
Johnson has addressed the issue of how he contracted the virus almost from the moment he announced his retirement from the Lakers during an emotion-charged news conference at the Forum last Nov. 7.
Soon afterward, in his first network interview after his retirement, Johnson told Connie Chung on “CBS News, Face to Face” that he was not bisexual.
“I’ve had to deal with those rumors, circling around,” he said.
In “My Life,” Johnson said he would like to know who gave him the virus.
“I called a number of women before I made the announcement, so they could get tested. I also called women after the announcement. They knew about it by then, of course, but I still felt some responsibility toward them. Of the women I have talked to, nobody has tested positive--at least not yet.”
Johnson’s relationship with Thomas might have cooled long before the alleged telephone conversation as a result of the rumor.
Strained by the Laker-Piston meetings in the NBA finals in 1988 and 1989, Newsday theorized that the friendship might have been eroded by Thomas’ omission from the Dream Team, featuring Johnson, that won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.
According to Newsday’s unidentified source, Thomas perceived that Johnson was partly at fault for his not being included on the team and began spreading the rumor of Johnson’s bisexuality in retaliation.
Staff writer Scott Miller in San Diego contributed to this story.