When Magic Johnson charges toward the basket tonight, any Jazz player who might be hesitant about checking the great forward should take a hint from Dr. Kristen Ries.
"If the other teams have people who are phobic and afraid of him, they might lose a lot of games," warned Ries, Utah's most famous AIDS specialist."They better get educated. It's their living, and it's not reasonable" to have the kind of fear of a player with HIV.
Although Johnson is the only NBA superstar to announce he has the virus that causes AIDS, many of those interviewed say he may not be the only one. Regardless, according to Ries and others, the risk is negligible.
AIDS is contracted through two basic routes: unprotected sex and sharing drug needles. Neither will happen on the floor of the Forum tonight.
Although blood can also spreadAIDS - for example, through a tainted transfusion - the likelihood of contracting the disease that way through sport is almost vanishingly small.
"Some statistical studies have been calculated on that," said Ries. "Many people think that if you just look at sports in general - knowing there have to be more than Magic Johnson with HIV who are playing - that the risk of just leaving home and driving a car is higher."
A certain proportion of the public is phobic about AIDS. Ries thinks Johnson's first comeback attempt fizzled because he worried about the reactions of other players.
"I think things are changed over time. As people become more aware and more educated they don't get as panicky. But there may be some people out there who are afraid of him, and only time will tell."
What about Johnson's medical condition? Is he fit to play this strenuous sport? "That kind of physical stress, for a healthy person with HIV, should not be any problem at all. In fact, exercise is good for a person," she said.
Mental stress is another question, Ries said, and that depends on the personality of the infected person.
Johnson made his bombshell announcement four years ago. Shouldn't he have the actual complex of AIDS illnesses by now?
"We don't know anything about him (in terms of how long he's had the virus). But if a person first contracts the illness, the average is about 10 years before they become sick."
Of course, some patients are extreme cases on either side of the average. Ries knows of cases where people were exposed 17 or 18 years ago and remain healthy.
Still, only 5 or 6 percent of HIV-positive people go that long without developing AIDS symptoms, she said.
Barbara Shaw, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, says Johnson will be playing with his doctor's blessing.
"The NBA would not have allowed him back without the doctor's permission, because of their liability as well," she said.
Shaw thinks Johnson is a perfect example of how well a person can feel even when HIV-positive. He "was in excellent physical shape when he learned he had the virus," she explained.
"He's obviously always taken care of his body. He's always worked out, so I think it's probably one of the reasons he's continued as healthy as he is."
Johnson practices good nutrition and has never smoked, Shaw said. And he is not likely to allow basketball to harm his health.
"He's not dumb. He's going to pay attention to his physical condition and if anything changes to affect his playing, he'll stop."
She too noted that some people have lived a decade and a half with the virus.
Does having the virus itself cause a person to lose stamina? "Not necessarily. The disease hits different people differently. Once he became HIV positive, he can go a long time with no symptoms at all."
Shaw too stressed the virtual impossibility of contracting AIDS while playing basketball.
In order to that to happen through a collision on the court, "the blood of one player, the AIDS player, would have to get into the bloodstream of the other player. That doesn't mean splashed on them," she said.
Even with swift, large men galloping across the boards, a collision of that magnitude is extremely unlikely. They'd have to slam together so hard they are both cut, and then one would have to actually bleed into the other's open wounds.
Also, according to relatively new rules followed by both the NBA and collegiate basketball, whenever blood is shed or someone even gets a scrape, the player has to leave the floor and get it bandaged.
"When John Stockton got hit the other night and cut his lip, he left the floor entirely, went into the locker room, and got it stitched up, and then came back," she said.
Shaw added that the rules also require that any time there's any blood on a player's uniform, he must leave the game and change into a clean uniform.
NBA players understand much more about HIV and AIDS than they did when Johnson first retired from the game, she said.
"I think they have learned a lot in four years, as have we all."