Magic may not be, but jersey is retired Laker leaves door open in emotional farewell

February 17, 1992|By Steve Springer | Steve Springer,Los Angeles Times

INGLEWOOD, CALIF — INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- In his most magical moments, Magic Johnson caused the champagne to flow at the Forum. But in his final moment yesterday, his official retirement, the only thing flowing were tears.

Tears of regret at a career cut short by the virus that causes AIDS. Tears of frustration at what might have been. Tears of joy at what already had been in a career that stamped Johnson as one of the greatest to play the game.

At the age of 11, he had dreamed of joining his boyhood hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the NBA.

But Johnson never dreamed that, at the relatively young age of 32, he would be joining Abdul-Jabbar in retirement on the Forum's wall of honor.

But like any great magician, Johnson kept his audience guessing. Even as he stared up at his newly hung Los Angeles Lakers uniform yesterday, Johnson hinted that it might not stay up there long.

"I hope if I do decide to come back," he told the cheering crowd in an emotion-packed ceremony at halftime of the Lakers-Boston Celtics game, "you wouldn't be too upset if we did this all over again."

A three-time league Most Valuable Player, Johnson played on five NBA champions in his dozen seasons in the league. Last November, he shocked the world by announcing he had tested positive for HIV and was leaving the game that had been his life.

Certainly the Lakers would not be upset if he decided to return.

Coach Mike Dunleavy, asked what the day's most hopeful moment had been, replied, "That they put the banner up with Velcro."

Later, Johnson told reporters, "I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to play in the Olympics. That's a dead issue. Now we move on to whether or not I come back."

Will he or won't he? Johnson promised a decision soon, perhaps this week.

"We'll have to come up with a game plan," he said. "If fatigue is a factor, we'll see if we can come up with something. Maybe I won't play back-to-back games."

Johnson's uniform is the fifth to be retired by the Lakers, joining those of Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

They were all in attendance yesterday for the 45-minute ceremony. So were former teammates Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes and Kurt Rambis.

Also on hand was longtime nemesis Larry Bird, who flew in to be with his old adversary even though a bad back prevented Bird from playing with the Celtics.

Johnson later disclosed he told Bird, "Let's both suit up and run out and play the last five minutes. That would have been interesting."

Johnson's pregnant wife, Cookie, seemed at ease when the ceremonies were over.

"I cried," she said. "It was very emotional. It's the end of a career, but it's the beginning of our new life together."

Johnson, who had tears running down his cheeks at various points in the ceremonies and had trouble keeping his voice from cracking at one point, seemed the most overcome when he gave Abdul-Jabbar a long hug, one Johnson seemed reluctant to end.

"When he hugged Kareem," Cookie said, "you knew it was all over, all in the past."

So is it all over? Will her husband indeed retire following the Summer Olympics?

"You never know," she replied with a wink. "And I'm not saying another word."

Johnson's son, 10-year-old Andre, was also on hand yesterday. What has he been told about the whole situation?

"That I'm going to be here forever with him," Johnson said. "And that the time I have here, we're going to have a good time. That's the only thing I can tell him. Nobody knows."

There were plenty of gifts for Johnson yesterday.

Bird presented him with a piece of the parquet floor from Boston Garden.

Johnson's teammates presented him with a sculpted bust of himself and have also commissioned a life-size statue of Johnson, to be permanently placed at the Forum.

The NBA and the Players Association donated $600,000 to the Magic Johnson Foundation Inc., an organization dedicated to AIDS education and prevention. The Laker wives added another $100,000 donation.

General manager West presented Johnson with a framed uniform on behalf of the front office. The Lakers coaches gave Johnson a gold watch.

And, it was announced, owner Jerry Buss will endow a full-tuition scholarship in Johnson's name at Magic's old school, Michigan State.

There were also taped good wishes from opponents Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, along with Pat Riley, Johnson's longtime Lakers coach.

In thanking Lakers announcer Chick Hearn, Johnson said he no longer puts mustard on his hot dogs, "because the mustard was always coming off the hot dog," referring to Hearn's famous saying.

In looking up at the five jerseys now retired into Lakers lore, Chamberlain figures he was looking at the makings of a pretty decent team.

"With Magic and Jerry at the guards," Chamberlain said, "I don't see how we could lose. I'll even play power forward and let Kareem be the center."

When yesterday's ceremonies were over, Johnson let out a sigh of appreciation in discussing each of the players present. But his two favorites were obviously Bird and Abdul-Jabbar.

"With Kareem, I just kind of fell apart," Johnson said. "We've been through so much."

He said that when he and Bird are finally, conclusively in retirement, they would play one-on-one on pay-per-view.

"For about $50 million apiece," he said with a laugh.

But in the end, he admitted the toughest part of the afternoon was walking out there for the ceremony.

"I just started crying," he said. "I walked that way so many times and now I was walking out to say goodbye. It was difficult. You never know how to say goodbye. How do you do that?"

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