Johnson's MVP return, final three-point splurge are Showtime at its best

SIMPLY MAGIC

February 10, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Correspondent

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Could it have turned out any other way?

Of course, Magic Johnson was going to step out on to the Orlando Arena court for the 42nd All-Star Game and turn it into his personal showcase, scoring 25 points and winning the game's Most Valuable Player award.

Of course, he would hit three straight three-pointers in the last 2 minutes, 41 seconds, including a fade-away over his good buddy, Isiah Thomas, to cap the West's 153-113 demolition of the East stars.

And, of course, Johnson, who retired three months ago after testing HIV-positive, would shut down Thomas and Michael Jordan on successive possessions with a sellout crowd of 14,272 in an uproar.

Why, you ask? Because for 13 years, since the day he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson has been making magic.

And there was no reason to think that yesterday, with the whole world watching and wondering whether a man who had tested positive for the AIDS virus still could perform, he would do anything other than dazzle.

"I've been writing a story all weekend, and I was at my typewriter trying to think of an ending for this story," Johnson said. "That was my dot. That's the end."

What an end it was for Johnson, who had become the overwhelming story of All-Star Weekend, having been voted into a game that was played nearly three months after he had retired.

Johnson had hoped that his participation would speak to the contributions that HIV-positive people can make to society and to athletics.

"The message is that people with this virus can live on, and run and jump and live productive lives," said Johnson. "Today was a big part to educate the public. Life doesn't stop because something happens."

Any questions about how quickly Johnson would be welcomed back into the NBA fold were answered about as quickly as it took to decide the game.

"Whatever choices he decides to make, whether it's good or bad, it's my obligation as his friend to support him," said Thomas, a guard with the Detroit Pistons. "The decisions and choices that he makes, it's not for me to judge."

When Magic announced that he was going to play, I was skeptical like everyone else, at first," said Portland guard Clyde Drexler, who also made a strong MVP bid with 22 points.

"But once it was confirmed that everything was safe and he was going to play, everyone in the United States who knows anything about basketball was extremely happy with today."

After Johnson was introduced and during what would be a two-minute standing ovation, the East squad, led by Thomas, proceeded over to Johnson's spot and embraced him.

"When we got together in the locker room before the game, I told the guys on our team that after the player introductions, we should all go over and give Magic a hug and make him feel comfortable," said Thomas. "I think he was a little shocked."

Johnson said: "I was shocked. But I enjoyed every hug and every high-five."

And as the starters headed out for the opening tip, Johnson and Thomas exchanged their now-customary kiss on the cheek, as a sort of sign that everything would be all right.

On the court, everything seemed all right, too, particularly on one memorable exchange in the second period where Johnson, a 6-foot-9 guard, backed Detroit defensive specialist Dennis Rodman down into the lane, then launched a successful sky hook.

"Dennis told me, 'I'm going to guard you tough and you're not going to score,' " said Johnson. "I couldn't wait to post him up."

The game and Johnson's performance led to inevitable speculation over whether Johnson will come out of retirement and suit up again for the Lakers, who have planned to retire his jersey this Sunday, when the Boston Celtics, including Johnson's longtime friend and adversary Larry Bird, come to town.

Johnson, who has announced plans to play in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, has virtually ruled out a return this season, but has left the door open for coming back next year, either in Los Angeles or in Europe.

"I'm not going to say tomorrow that I want to get out there," Johnson said. "I don't make snap decisions. I'm the kind of guy that likes to take walks and think about things."

Thomas said: "In terms of being an athlete, when you're 40, 50 or 60 years old, you're always going to believe that you'll be able to continue playing your sport. Basketball is almost an addiction to an athlete. It's what makes you what you are. Even 10 or 20 years from now, he'll probably still think he can play the game."

Early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got into a three-point due with Washington Bullets ace Michael Adams (nine points). Adams made his first, missed his second. Johnson knocked in two in a row.

As for the closing sequence, Johnson said things happened about the way he wanted them to.

"If this is going to be the last time, then that's the way I wanted it," Johnson said. "The only person that was missing was Larry. We'll go behind his house on the blacktop and we'll hook up."

Jordan, who led the East stars with 18, said: "I really felt he went out the way he wanted to go out -- with respect."

Thomas said: "He was off balance when he took that last shot and I looked around and said, 'There's no way that's going in.' He threw it up and it had a crooked arc on it. I saw it go in and it was magic. He's a special guy and the reason he's a special guy is that special things happen to him. The things that have happened to him will probably never happen to anyone else ever."

Magic numbers

:. Magic Johnson's last All-Star Game hurrah:

Minutes: 29 (331 career is eighth all time)

Field-goal shooting: 9-for-12

3-point shots: 3; extends career record to 21

point baskets: 3; extends career record to 10

Foul shooting: 4-for-4 (.905 career)

Rebounds: 5 (including 3 offensive)

Assists: 9; extends career record to 127

Fouls: none

Points: 25 (176 career, ninth all time

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