Who's writing script for Johnson's saga? Why, it's Magic Man himself

February 10, 1992|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Magic Johnson has been sitting at the typewriter of his basketball life for several months now, trying to write himself an ending, but it just hasn't been there.

"It seemed like every time I got to the last sentence," said Johnson, who had to retire from the NBA Nov. 7 because he has the AIDS virus, "I'd have to tear the paper out of the typewriter and throw it away. I couldn't come up with that final dot. But finally, I came up with the ending. That was my dot. Yeah."

Perhaps the final punctuation mark for one of the most glorious careers in the history of basketball came with just seconds left in the 42nd NBA All-Star Game here yesterday, in which the Western Conference All-Stars overwhelmed the East 153-113.

Johnson, who was named Most Valuable Player for his 25 points and nine assists in 29 minutes, had just squared off one-on-one against Isiah Thomas and then Michael Jordan, the other players clearing away.

And Johnson stopped them both, Thomas being forced into a turnover on a 24-second violation after a Globetrotter-like dribbling exhibition and Jordan being turned away from the basket and pulling up and missing a jumper.

"If this is going to be it for me," Johnson said, "this was the way I wanted to go out. I wanted to get Isiah one time and get Michael one time. And the only one missing was Larry [Bird]. But we'll hook up on the blacktop and we'll go one-on-one."

Having accomplished what he wanted yesterday, Johnson came down the court as the seconds ticked away on the game, if not his basketball life. He had been warned that playing could curtail his life, and while he said he still plans to play in the Olympics next summer, he was acting very much like this game was a farewell.

Johnson shook Jordan and grabbed the ball on the right side. Thomas, who had led the East All-Stars in a pre-game greeting of embraces for Johnson, pushed up against the 12-time All-Star. Johnson leaned right and launched a 30-foot shot put, the kind of shot some suggested would keep him from becoming a star when he left Michigan State in 1979 for the Lakers.

And, predictably, it swished through the basket for the last points of the game.

"I was just hoping it would go in because Magic has been writing these scripts for years," West center David Robinson said.

"He was off balance when he took that last shot," Thomas said, "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 just saw it go in and it was magic."

This weekend's annual NBA All-Star party was both a celebration of Johnson's contribution to the game and an anxious controversy about whether the HIV-positive athlete, who hasn't played in the NBA this season, should be permitted to participate in the game.

Questions were everywhere. Was it safe? Were the players fearful? Wasn't this a showcase for active players? If Johnson was barred, was that discrimination against people with the disease? Did he have enough left? What would happen?

By 3:50 p.m., the questions began to be answered.

Johnson hit two free throws after being fouled by Jordan after a missed shot, and seconds later charged down the lane for a layup.

That began what would soon become a West rout, the most lopsided All-Star Game since 1966 and one point short of the all-time record for points scored by one team in an All-Star game.

The West, with Clyde Drexler getting 22 points and nine rebounds in an impressive performance, bolted ahead 44-31 after one quarter and 79-55 by halftime. A 17-0 second-quarter run effectively ended whatever contest this would be.

Which was fine with the sellout crowd in the Orlando Arena, who were as anxious as the players to see Magic again and to touch him in their own way.

The East players -- including the Washington Bullets' lone representative Michael Adams (nine points) -- began the goodbyes just after the pregame introductions when Thomas led them across court to greet Johnson.

"Isiah led the charge," said Jordan, who led the East team with 18 points. "It was very emotional."

No less so for Johnson, who reveled in every moment of the afternoon, from talking trash with his opponents ("Dennis Rodman told me I wasn't going to score on him and Isiah said he was picking me up fullcourt") to collapsing in his teammates' arms on the bench after Charles Barkley dunked so hard he knocked Dikembe Mutombo down.

"The all-for-one and one-for-all of a team," said Johnson, "you miss that. The high-fivin' on the bench was so much fun and going back and forth.

"This is what you bottle up and take with you forever," said Johnson, "the locker room and shootin' the breeze with the guys, talking with the coaches. All of it. It's something I'll cherish for the rest of my life."

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