As Alice in Wonderland might say, Magic Johnson's basketball situation is getting curiouser and curiouser.
It is no longer an argument solely over whether the retired NBA superstar, who is infected with the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, should be allowed to participate in Sunday's All-Star game and the summer Olympics in Barcelona. A far bigger issue is whether he should be reactivated by the Los Angeles Lakers this season.
Each day, Johnson seems to be leaning closer toward rejoining the Lakers, who have managed to remain competitive in his absence, only four games back of the division-leading Portland Trail Blazers.
He has been working out as much as three hours a day in pickup games in the Los Angeles area against former college players and former Lakers teammate Larry Drew.
Said Johnson: "The key is staying healthy, and that's what I'm doing. I've been banging, hitting and driving, and I feel great. I'm all right to play right now if I want to. The only thing to keep me from playing is myself. I haven't ruled out coming back."
But Johnson's indecision has put Lakers general manager Jerry West in an awkward position. He cannot publicly dissuade the most popular Laker of all time from returning to the game. At the same time, Johnson's hedging can create only unrest among active players, speculating on his possible return and how it would influence the roster.
"It's very frustrating," West said recently, while also announcing plans to go ahead with retiring Johnson's uniform Feb. 16.
"The only thing we're concerned about is his health," said West. "Whether or not he plays again is his decision, and we are behind him 100 percent whatever he decides."
"When a player leaves the game, it's usually because he retires or isn't good enough to keep playing," West added. "But Magic retired because of a tragedy. He is obviously a very competitive person and loves the game, and I feel for him. But so far, I have said nothing to him and he has said nothing to me about playing for the Lakers again."
The Lakers received a $1.25 million dispensation (half Johnson's current salary) from the league when it was determined Johnson had a prolonged illness. West used that money in his offer sheet for Miami guard Sherman Douglas, but the Heat matched the offer and subsequently traded Douglas to the Boston Celtics for Brian Shaw.
Even if Johnson returns this season, the Lakers still will be allowed to maintain the salary allowance. And West may have a better idea about just how serious Johnson's comeback plans are after his All-Star appearance on Sunday.
Clipping penalty: Few eyebrows were raised when Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Schuler became the latest coaching casualty. Even though the Clippers had won 21 games, only 10 fewer than all of last season, Schuler, a stern taskmaster, had lost control of his team.
The tip-off of his demise came on Martin Luther King Day when his players rejected his proposed practice, 11-0. An injured Doc Rivers did not vote, but empathized with his coach. "They didn't reject practice for the right reasons," said Rivers. "Schuler is no racist. He was just a man fighting for his job."
Penders may get Spurs: The best bet to replace fired Larry Brown in San Antonio is current University of Texas coach Tom Penders. General manager Bob Bass is acting as the Spurs' interim coach.
Penders reportedly has become disenchanted with Southwest Conference basketball, still a poor cousin to football, and lost an archrival when Arkansas bolted for the Southeastern Conference.
A frequent golf partner of Spurs owner Red McCombs, Penders said: "I've always thought about the NBA. I talked to the Knicks last year, but that's as far as it got. The timing for any job has to be right, but it [a Spurs offer] is something I'd think strongly about."
Low Heat: Boston CEO Dave Gavitt has a theory on why Brian Shaw, the former Celtics playmaker, is now a bench-warmer in Miami following his January trade to the Heat. Gavitt claims Shaw lost his intensity after leaving Boston in 1989 to play a year for Il Messaggero in Italy.
"Italy's great for old American players," Gavitt said. "But it's tough for a young player to return to the NBA after playing once a week and enjoying 'La Dolca Vita.' Italian players are notorious for not working hard, and Brian had a difficult time rekindling the fire last year. It just didn't happen."