In his game of life, Magic wants to play

MIKE LITTWIN

September 30, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Magic Johnson didn't simply unretire yesterday.

It was as if, in returning to the NBA, he had taken his life back.

You should have seen him at the news conference. Johnson was flashing the famous smile. Life was good, he said. He felt great, he said. He felt strong. He couldn't wait. He was thrilled. It was the old enthusiasm and then some. It was your basic unretirement party.

"I'm back," Magic said. He said that a few times. The last time, he sighed and added: "Finally."

He is returning to the Lakers this season because it's his life and because he wants to, whatever the risks.

"God put me here to play basketball, and to do my thing," Johnson said, as if that explained everything.

Because he was asked, Johnson talked about risks -- and then dismissed them. He said he had nothing to prove. He sure doesn't need the money or the fame or even the applause.

When he announced his decision to rejoin the Lakers, Johnson led his own cheer: "Yeaaaaaaa." He made the announcement to unretire from the very room in which he had told the world nearly a year ago he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS. The difference between this year and last couldn't have been more striking.

Oh, there was that one moment when the room went quiet. Johnson, asked about his retired number that flies high above the Forum floor, said he would still wear No. 32, explaining: "I'm not dead." He didn't mean it that way, but you knew what everyone was thinking.

Johnson didn't seem to notice. He joked about his wife wanting him out of the house, or he joked about bribing her with a million dollars to let him play. ("It was a lot more than that," she joked back.) He told us what we knew -- or at least imagined -- of how much the game meant to him.

We saw him at the Olympics. We saw him at the NBA All-Star Game. We heard about his workouts, about his weightlifting. He has gained 12 pounds. He looks good. No, he looks great.

And when he said he would play maybe 60 games this season, he was clearly thrilled.

It was not hard not to be thrilled for him.

Until the doctor spoke.

"We really don't know," said Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers' team doctor, of how the season would play out. "He's a unique case. We've never done this before."

Mellman said Johnson's season would be an "experiment." That's a hard word -- experiment -- when you're dealing with people and not guinea pigs. The doctor said he couldn't advise Johnson precisely how many games he should play. This is new territory. The answer will depend on how Johnson feels.

You hear this and you wonder if Johnson is doing the right thing.

It's his choice, of course. And the AIDS experts are generally encouraging, saying there is no direct evidence to suggest that those who are HIV positive run any higher risk from exercise -- even extreme exercise. Typically, someone with the virus develops AIDS in seven to 10 years.

Johnson knows the experts. As you probably know, he had served on the National Commission on AIDS until resigning last week while blasting the Bush administration for paying lip service to the problem. He left because he said he didn't want to be used by anyone. He was not a figurehead. He is someone with the disease.

And so, he knows everything about T-cell blood counts. He knows the odds against finding a cure in time to help him. He has seen the dying. And he will tell you that it's important to concentrate on the living.

"I'm not going to say there's no risk," he said. "Life is a risk. . . I think the positives outweigh the risks."

He knows better than most that life is a risk. And now he has decided that any risks involved in playing professional basketball are acceptable. It may not be the decision you'd make or I'd make. But it isn't our decision.

Although Johnson insisted yesterday that he found his life off the court satisfying, he could not have told the entire truth. He is 33, nearing retirement age anyway. His good friend and rival, Larry Bird, has just retired himself. They came into the league together. There would have been symmetry certainly to Johnson's joining Bird in retirement.

It should have been easy, after the Olympics, to say he'd done everything it was possible to do on a basketball court.

But Johnson, it's clear, doesn't want it to be over until he says it's over.

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