Why, Magic? Reasons just don't add up

November 03, 1992|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County (Calif.) Register

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Magic Johnson owed us no explanation.

Since he decided to give us several, we still hold out for a better one.

His 34-day comeback gave way to his Final, Official Retirement (see Ray Leonard) from the Los Angeles Lakers. Silence would have been golden by comparison.

He quit because Karl Malone, Gerald Wilkins, Mark Price and Jerry Colangelo were scared he might bleed on somebody.

Yeah, but Johnson heard the same hogwash from Australians before the Olympics, and even other All-Stars before the All-Star Game. He silenced that ignorance with his play. Johnson is a notoriously stubborn fellow, deaf to the peanut gallery. Remember how he let everybody blame him for the end of Paul Westhead? "Magic had to know this would come with the territory," Jerry West said yesterday. It didn't make sense to him either.

OK, it wasn't just that.

Johnson wanted to shield his family from the furor, and spend more time at home.

Ahem. The newfound family man apparently can't wait to tour Australia, Italy and everywhere short of Antarctica. He also will hit the hustings in his virtuous battle against AIDS. That's all wonderful, but pardon my smirk as I'm asked to envision Johnson as Fred MacMurray.

OK, it wasn't just that.

Johnson was afraid the controversy would cause a distraction -- yeah, that's it -- that the Lakers didn't need.

"I've gotten pretty immune to distraction," A.C. Green said, with a survivor's smile, at Loyola Marymount yesterday. Indeed, Johnson was going to be the biggest, if most welcome, distraction in NBA history. He was going to play 50, 55, or 60 games, none consecutively on the road (run that one through the calculator), and he would make sure to announce his schedule well in advance of the 1992-93 season. But the season starts Friday. Randy Pfund, the Lakers coach, never saw that schedule. Distraction?

OK, it wasn't just that.

Johnson was afraid that by playing, and by leaving himself open to criticism, he would hurt the fight against AIDS. "The message would get lost," said Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent and designated answer man.

Time out. By playing, Johnson would have brought a new character into our national drama -- the muscular HIV-positive patient. By leading the Lakers into the NBA Finals, Johnson would have changed the image of the afflicted forever.

He also would have "educated" -- a word Rosen uttered more often yesterday than Bill Clinton has in 12 months -- the Malones, Wilkenses and others who never seemed to influence Johnson in the past. Remember, Johnson came back to the Lakers even though Green and Byron Scott, two of his best friends in life, once doubted that he should.

But all that is gone, and the Lakers remain.

"We'll proceed," Pfund said. "I said 'Show Time' was over from Day 1, this season. It's not Camelot anymore. This team can make its own moments."

West suspected Johnson's rare brush with bad press chased him, Perot-like, into privacy. Mostly, West was hacked that he couldn't replace Johnson within the salary cap. If he'd known Johnson wasn't playing this year, he might have plucked somebody besides backup center James Edwards.

Johnson also has to answer to those fans who shelled out wheelbarrows full of Krugerrands to buy Lakers tickets after Sept. 29. The Lakers didn't deceive anybody, but it's up to them to make it right.

Johnson did one thing right yesterday. If he was going to about-face, he had to do it right now. "To do it in midseason would have been devastating for our team," West said.

The gallant Rosen, speaking for an absent client, said this: "I imagine that if Magic knew then what he knows now, he probably wouldn't have come back."

Magic Johnson came back to play basketball, and to vanquish rumor and stupidity and confusion.

He left yesterday.

They're still here. Still undefeated.

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