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Just What the Doctor Ordered? : AIDS Specialist Says Johnson’s Return as Coach of Lakers Might Prove Beneficial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A leading AIDS specialist endorsed Magic Johnson’s surprise return to the Lakers as the team’s coach, saying Wednesday it could prove beneficial to his health.

“We always thought that was an important aspect in his care,” said David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at New York University.

Ho has assisted Michael Mellman, the Laker team physician, in Johnson’s care and treatment since Johnson was found to have the virus that causes AIDS in 1991.

“I personally think it is OK,” Ho said of Johnson’s decision. “He’s been doing quite well recently. We always considered that he was well enough to work, maybe not as a professional athlete, but in some other position.”

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Mellman also supported the decision.

“If you look at Earvin, he’s happiest, other than with his family, on the basketball court,” he said Wednesday. “Whether he is playing or coaching is less an issue. The primary issue is being involved in the game he loves so much.”

Johnson reassured reporters Wednesday that coaching will not affect his health, although one reason cited when he retired before the 1991-92 season was the NBA’s heavy travel schedule. AIDS specialists said at the time that the rigors of a long season could reduce Johnson’s ability to slow the progressive weakening of the immune system.

“Playing basketball, to me, is more strenuous than coaching,” Johnson said. “This is fine.”

Johnson and Mellman said Johnson does not have AIDS, the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

“Let me just say this to everybody: I’m fine, don’t worry about that,” Johnson said. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this. Let me just ease everybody’s mind. I’ve been on tour, I’ve been playing, I’ve been everywhere. If something was wrong, I wouldn’t be coaching this team.”

Mellman, who oversees Johnson’s medical care, was not consulted in this week’s decision, but said he and Johnson discussed the possibility of coaching during the last two years.

“As a head coach, he will be able to adjust his lifestyle appropriately,” Mellman said. “It’s not like he has to be able to run every night. He has more control as a coach than a player because he will be setting the standards and the rules.”

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Ho said as long as Johnson continues to watch his diet, rest and stress level, he will be fine on the sidelines.

Ho and Mellman said Johnson’s care should not change because of the job.

But will it have a positive affect on Johnson’s life?

“You’re dealing with an issue we don’t know the answers to,” Mellman said. “I think this will be a positive event overall. If you ask me for proof or substantiation, there is none.

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“He is the first known player who was HIV-positive and now the first known coach.”

Times staff writer Scott Howard-Cooper contributed to this story.


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