INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Everything is different. And everything is the same.
Welcome to the post-Magic era at the still Fabulous Forum where the Laker Girls remain spectacularly politically incorrect, and the glitterati gladly pay $500 for courtside seats. I saw Dyan there the other night. Jack left his condolences. The Lakers, a game out of first, were playing Portland, and the place was packed.
It seemed the same. It was the same.
And it wasn't. Nothing has been quite the same since Magic Johnson told the world he was HIV-positive.
"It was our first time here this year, and it was a strange feeling," Trail Blazers star Clyde Drexler was saying. "The whole aura has changed. The Hollywood thing, Showtime, it's all gone. They're still a good team -- make sure you say that -- but there isn't the same excitement. You know I used to guard Magic sometimes, and I used to have nightmares about it. This is new to me, just like it is new to everyone."
The Blazers won the game. The walk-it-up Lakers scored 88 points. In their previous four games, they'd scored 85, 93, 88 and 85. The incredible nine-game winning streak they had fashioned without Magic and without injured center Vlade Divac -- a streak rooted in what Byron Scott called "pure guts and desire" -- is history. And so is their record this month -- 7-8. If they lose tonight, it will be their first losing month since March 1979, the last March before the arrival in L.A. of a certain Magic Johnson.
Here's the truth: Most of the excitement came before the game. It was 5:45, the gates hadn't opened, and some of the Lakers were involved in a typical, pre-game, who-buys-lunch, three-point shooting contest. There was one tall man not in uniform -- dressed in Lakers warm-up pants and a Lakers T-shirt -- shooting, he would say later, until his arm fell off.
Soon, the gates opened, and those in the know -- this is a town where being in the know counts -- rushed to the floor to see Magic Johnson, the one in the Lakers T-shirt, shooting a basketball. The cameras clicked as of old, as he shot baskets, teased his former teammates, signed the odd autograph, shook some hands, hugged A.C. Green and kept shooting baskets.
One man said to his young son: "This is history."
It's an odd history. Earvin Johnson is gone, and yet, like Magic, he's still here.
"I go to the practices," Johnson would say. "I go to the shoot-arounds. I go to the games and sit on the bench and root for the fellas. I do some drills, just to keep my dribbling sharp. I'm here all the time."
It's a little confusing. Clearly, he doesn't want to leave, and, just as clearly, nobody wants him to.
Standing in front of his locker, where his nameplate hasn't been removed, where, in fact, he continues to dress, Johnson talks about how he might like to play in the All-Star Game (he's second in the voting for West guards), how he plans to play in the Olympics, how he's looking to purchase a team, how life is very good. It seems as if he's making an easier transition than anyone.
"I thought I was busy when I was playing," said Magic, the familiar smile in place. "Whew. It's been a million times more. The president of Italy, or whatever he's called over there, calls and wants to give me the country's highest honor. I hear from people all over the world. From France, from Spain. From everywhere.
"I've been busy setting up my foundation [to fight AIDS]. I've got my family. I've got my baby coming, and thank the Lord she's going to be OK. I've got my 10-year-old son out with me. After the first of the year, I'm going to see the president, check in with the AIDS Commission and I've got my Pepsi distributorship in D.C. I do as much as the doctors say is OK."
That includes all the basketball, but not too much of the basketball. He wants to own a team, not play for one. As he says, it isn't as if he hasn't accomplished pretty much all he can. Now, there's life to live.
"People ask me how I can be so upbeat," he said. "I'm living. I'm breathing. I've got the Olympics to look forward to. I've got my family. If you take your medicine and take care of yourself, you can go 15 or 20 years without developing AIDS. I'm the same way I always was."
If Johnson insists his life is good, why would anyone argue? He says he's having a great time. He says that he is determined to help people understand AIDS and, at the same time, to help people afflicted with the virus and the disease and that his mission sustains him. If there has been criticism, he has also received hundreds of thousands of letters of support.
But it's maybe harder for his friends. Byron Scott is his best friend in basketball.
"Everything is different," he said. "It's different on the court and it's different off the court. We don't do the same things anymore. It can't be the same anymore. How could it be?"