PORTLAND, ORE — PORTLAND, Ore. -- How ironic that eight months after announcing he was HIV-positive, Magic Johnson is the standard of fitness for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team.
Johnson is carrying the AIDS virus, but, after sitting out the entire NBA season, he is back to his old dazzling self, helping the Dream Team dominate the Tournament of the Americas.
His teammates should look so healthy. Center Patrick Ewing missed the opener against Cuba with a dislocated right thumb, and forward Larry Bird sat out the second game against Canada with mild discomfort in his back. But the worst news came late Monday night, when guard John Stockton was lost for the tournament with a fractured right leg suffered in Monday's 105-61 victory over Canada.
The injury issue is not of great concern to coach Chuck Daly, because Johnson is, indeed, playing like the Magic of old, the man who helped resurrect the NBA. He had four points and nine assists against Cuba on Sunday, 13 points and eight assists Monday night.
Johnson, 32, played 21 minutes the first game, 25 the second. This is his first meaningful competition in more than a year. He was Most Valuable Player of the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 9, but that was an exhibition, not an Olympic qualifying tournament.
The stakes now are higher, and Johnson is performing at such a high level that it is possible he will attempt to return to the Los Angeles Lakers next season.
Johnson, like his old rival Bird, won't address his status until after the Games of Barcelona, Spain. Bird is considering retirement because of his chronic sore back. Johnson, meanwhile, is acting reborn.
"That year off is like a blessing that even I didn't realize until I started playing again," Johnson said. "I'm fresher. I feel younger. Before, I was beat up, and I was tired.
"Being in the league 12 years can wear a man down. But I've been able to heal. My knees, my Achilles' -- everything that used to bother me has come back strong.
"I'm playing without kneepads now. Before, I couldn't move into an opening without huffing and puffing. Now, I can get to that seam. Now, it's 'Let's go.' "
Johnson said he prepared for this tournament by waking each day at 5:30 a.m. to lift weights. That was how he tested his mental discipline, and rediscovered how badly he wanted to play.
Afterward, he would rest, shoot for two hours, then rest again. Later, he would compete in pickup games at UCLA with players living in Los Angeles, players such as Pooh Richardson and Shaquille O'Neal.
All told, his daily workouts lasted five to six hours.
"I had no idea he was really that good," Duke's Christian Laettner said. "You'd better be watching what's going on, or he'll hit you in the face with a pass.
"He looks great on TV or if you're at the game, but the real experience is being on the floor with him. There's nothing like it."
Said Daly: "You have no idea what kind of impact it has on a team to have Magic Johnson as your floor leader. He's the glue. The other players love him, and he sets the tone every game."
With Stockton out, Johnson is the team's only true point guard. It seemed impossible he'd regain his playing stature when he announced his retirement at an emotional news conference Nov. 7. But he did.
"I already knew what I could do. It's you guys who didn't know," Johnson told reporters. "The question was: 'We'll see if he's still got it. Is he going to get sick? Is he going to get tired?'
"But I already knew, if I was working out that hard and nothing was coming about and my T-cells and everything we had to watch were going great. You guys had to see it. So here it is."
It's Magic, all right.
Dream Team schedule
Sunday: USA 136, Cuba 57
Monday: USA 105, Canada 61
Last night: USA 112, Panama 52
Tonight: Argentina, 10, TNT
Friday: Semifinals, 10 p.m., TNT
Sunday: Final, 4 p.m., NBC