NEW YORK -- This was a scene out of a movie, confused only because it was out of time and place. With cameras clicking and the media buzzing, there was Earvin Johnson gamely dribbling the basketball and swishing jumpers with that funny right-handed push and Pat Riley working him with hard passes that forced him to react.
"Well," Johnson said, "I'm glad you could all make it to see Coach Riley's first and only open practice session of the year."
Of course everybody laughed. For years, that was just another one of the gifts the man named Magic had. But this wasn't the Los Angeles Forum and neither one has anything to do with the Los Angeles Lakers any more.
The two were working out in Madison Square Garden, where Riley coaches the New York Knicks, and Johnson was making his first public appearance playing basketball since Nov. 7 when he announced that he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that leads to AIDS.
"I came here to work out with Coach Riley, spend some time with him," Johnson said. "He's a special friend. I'm not trying to show you, 'Hey I'm healthy.' I mean, you'll see me eventually and you'll know. You can't have a schedule like mine and not be healthy. I feel wonderful."
Which led to the next tidbit. It not only was his way of saying reports of his demise are grossly premature, but that he fully intends to play in the 1992 Olympics.
"Yes, I'm going to play," Johnson said. "I plan on playing. The reason I decided not to play now is because I want to live for a long time and it might have shortened my life. Hopefully, I won't have to play long, there will be [Michael] Jordan, [Scottie] Pippen, [Patrick] Ewing . . . so I won't have to play a lot of minutes."
The tiny packed room above the Garden floor was packed with reporters, photographers and 12 TV cameras. Showered and dressed, Johnson's gleaming smile lit up the room. Clean-shaven and filled with as much humor as ever before, he talked about how much he missed his Lakers teammates.
"I'm a spectator, a fan, a cheerleader and a coach all rolled into one," he said. He knows that without him and with Vlade Divac out for at least six weeks following surgery for a herniated disk, it's going to be a tough road.
But as a 12-year veteran, Johnson, 32, said he wasn't suffering the withdrawal from retirement that he would have suffered had he been younger -- considering his nine trips to the NBA Championship Series and five championship rings. He's running four miles a day, working on the treadmill, and playing as much basketball as possible.
And while his zest for life remains, he is different. He'll attack everything at full speed, which means teaching the public everything there is to know about HIV and AIDS while working for the president's committee on AIDS research.