Jury's out on Magic's return to court Uncertainty persists on his health, impact

October 20, 1992|By Martin C. Evans | Martin C. Evans,Contributing Writer

HONOLULU -- The game is only 12 seconds old.

A player in purple and gold, his brow creased with determination, runs off a pick, steps back toward the three-point line and launches.

Nothing but net.

The teams -- the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers -- fly down court, but moments later are scrambling this way again, spurred by the big man with the determined look. This time, he flicks a bounce pass to a cutting Sam Perkins, who gathers it in stride and lays it in.

Later, he backs an overmatched Rod Strickland toward the basket. Later still, he feeds Perkins, who is open for a three-pointer.

In a twinkling, the score is 14-5. Portland coach Rick Adelman has seen enough and calls timeout.

Magic Johnson is back.

Johnson, who a year ago announced his retirement from the Lakers after testing positive for the virus that causes AIDS, is playing for the Lakers again, and says he is loving it.

"When I hit that first shot, it was like 'OK, I'm back. I'm ready,' " Johnson said after collecting 14 assists in 27 minutes in his first Lakers game since returning from retirement, a 124-112 victory.

"It felt good, and it also felt good to see the other guys getting excited," said Johnson, the first known HIV-positive athlete in professional sports. "They were saying, 'Yeah, Junior, yeah, Buck, you're back, man.' "

But at least some players say there are lingering concerns over how much of a risk Johnson is taking in continuing to play. They also wonder what risk, if any, Johnson poses to others in an increasingly physical sport where flying elbows and butting heads sometimes draw blood.

"I worry about him from a health standpoint," said Clyde Drexler, the Trail Blazers All-Star who played with Johnson on the U.S. Olympic Dream Team. "It's good to see him back, but I have mixed emotions.

"They're finding out new things about the disease, so there are risks involved, especially for him," said Drexler, who watched the game in street clothes because he is recovering from knee surgery. "No one can say what will happen."

Although people who carry the virus eventually develop AIDS, a disease of the immune system that weakens and eventually kills its victims, Johnson so far seems healthy. He hit the weights over the summer, and, at 235 pounds -- 15 more than he was a year ago -- he is trim and powerful.

Johnson announced his retirement Nov. 11, after doctors advised him that playing could tax his system and increase the risk of developing AIDS early.

But Johnson soon became bored with retirement and, after standout performances in the NBA All-Star Game and in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, he decided to return on a limited basis.

"The year off could have helped him," said Steve Jones, an NBC-TV basketball analyst. "It's like a player who goes out with an injury and benefits from the rest. He looks as sharp and focused as I've ever seen him."

Johnson said he is taking especially good care of himself these days, getting more sleep, eating carefully and working out diligently. Friday, he ran the court easily and, although tired by game's end, he said that was to be expected on a team that likes to push the ball.

"We were running, so I'd better be tired," Johnson said, still perspiring after a shower, his brow gleaming in the television lights.

Johnson plans to play fewer minutes and avoid playing games on back-to-back nights. Of the 16 back-to-back games on the Lakers' schedule this year, Johnson is expected to play in both games once -- on the road against the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks on Dec. 9-10.

That means he could miss roughly a quarter of the Lakers' 82-game schedule, including potentially decisive games within the division late in the season.

Without Johnson in the lineup for Saturday's rematch with the Trail Blazers, the Lakers' offense was limited mostly to contested jump shots, while Portland feasted on easy layups. The Lakers struggled all night and lost badly, 112-83, scoring 41 fewer points than they had with Johnson the night before.

But if anyone on the club is worried that Johnson's in-again-out-again status will disrupt the Lakers, no one is saying.

Lakers general manager Jerry West said having Johnson in for at least part of the schedule outweighs any of his concerns about team inconsistency.

"It's always a concern, but the quality of your player is most important," said West.

"They played a year without me, and they were fine," Johnson said Friday.

The Lakers were 43-39 in 1991-92, finishing 14 games behind first-place Portland in the Pacific Division and landing the last Western Conference playoff spot by one game.

Great players rarely are content to watch from the bench as their teams lose, however. Will Johnson have the patience to sit out on days he's scheduled to rest, even during a losing streak or a crucial series?

A smile crept across his face. He cocked his head.

"It will be weird, because I'll want to be out there," he said.

"I'll just have to wait and see," he said, his grin now fully formed. "There is nothing cast in concrete."

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