CHICAGO -- The ovation began at 7:03 p.m. yesterday, rising out of the west end of Chicago Stadium as the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers eased through their pre-game layup drills.
The noise built on itself, like a roar at the front end of a fastbreak. A crush of television cameras and security men backed onto the court in front of the Bulls' bench. The players paused for a heartbeat, then resumed their work.
Magic had arrived. No one needed the TV spotlights to confirm it.
The last time he was here, wearing the Lakers' No. 32 in Game 2 of the NBA finals last June, Johnson provoked a different reaction. Last time he came as Mr. Glitz, the leader of the Left Coast bad guys. This time he was a spectator in his first trip to Chicago since a positive test for the HIV virus forced his retirement Nov. 7.
"You miss the games like this," Johnson had said an hour earlier. "I miss Michael [Jordan] and Chicago. I miss Larry [Bird] and Boston. This is when you really get up. I'm sweating right now, and I've got the goosebumps, just like I would before a game like this."
When he was introduced officially as No. 32, the warm, but not overwhelming, cheer lasted just 30 seconds. The boos of the finals had been replaced by politeness and, perhaps, pity.
But by the time the teams with the NBA's best records tipped off, Johnson was wedged onto the Lakers bench, and the cameras were trained on the floor.
"We wish and all pray that he could actually pick up and play and be OK, but the show must go on," Jordan said.
Said Johnson: "I'm ready for the battle, and I can't play. I want to take off this black suit and get out there."
Johnson's black suit -- actually a black sweater with matching slacks and loafers -- hardly reflected his mood at a news conference in a cluttered hallway in the Stadium basement. As animated as usual, Johnson spoke of his desire to play in the 1992 Olympics, clarified his position on mandatory AIDS testing for athletes (he's against it) and said he would only remain on a presidential commission on AIDS as long as its work "is going to be followed through."
Johnson also managed to squeeze in an afternoon chat with old friend and rival Jordan, who complained that he wasn't having fun this season. The two planned to meet after the game for dinner.
Otherwise, he was just Magic, dishing off waves and smiles as usual.
"You look good," a friend told him as he left the news conference.
"I feel fine," Johnson replied, squeezing his friend's elbow.
Johnson spends his games, as he put it, providing "an extra set of eyes" for head coach Mike Dunleavy. He rose from his seat often last night, once to spread his palms in an appeal for a foul when Jordan stuffed an Elden Campbell layup.
"I'm like an assistant coach, a cheerleader, a fan, all in one," Johnson said. "It's just nice to be around the fellas."
The season is only a quarter old, but the fellas have done quite well without Johnson -- they blew into town with a 15-7 record, and handled the Bulls easily, 102-89.
Jordan only shook his head when asked what it would be like to play the Magic-less Lakers.
"I figure he's going to have his own little way of being on the basketball court," Jordan said. "We're playing the Lakers with Magic. He might not be there physically, but he's passing on his knowledge to his teammates. When I put on my uniform tonight, I'm going to get ready to play Magic and the Lakers."
Johnson took the compliment with grace. "It's the Lakers now," he said. "But I'm still a big part of the experience."
Johnson deflected speculation that he might become an even bigger part by rejoining his team for the playoffs. He said he'd like to play in the All-Star Game, just two months off. But he insisted he'd join Jordan in Barcelona next summer.
"The Olympics?" Johnson said. "What can you say? That's going to be my championship."
Until then, though, Johnson plans to travel with the club, using his spotlight to push his message, a combination of safe sex and abstinence.