Magic rejoining Lakers? It's his call Newspaper reports deal has been struck

January 27, 1996|By Scott Howard-Cooper | Scott Howard-Cooper,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHILADELPHIA -- Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers have agreed in principle on a contract that would return the popular NBA superstar to the court more than four years after he first retired, sources said yesterday, leaving it to Johnson to decide whether he will play again.

L "Let's just say I haven't decided," Johnson said last night.

Johnson, 36, a three-time Most Valuable Player, led the Lakers to five NBA championships in the 1980s. He originally quit Nov. 7, 1991, after learning that he had tested positive for HIV, the virus ,, that causes AIDS. He announced a comeback the next fall and played in exhibition games before retiring again.

The Los Angeles Times has learned that Johnson would divest his 5 percent ownership in the club, as called for by NBA policy, and sign to play for the second half of the season and the playoffs, if the Lakers get that far, for $2.5 million, the maximum allowed under the league's salary-cap rules.

"It's done," one source close to the situation said.

Whether it will happen, however, remains uncertain. Johnson often has said that he loves his life as a businessman -- he has a chain of inner-city theaters -- and Lakers vice president. At the same time, he clearly has an interest to play again.

Lakers assistant coach Larry Drew, a close friend, said all indications are that Johnson will return. He has practiced with the Lakers several times in the past few weeks.

"Not based on anything he's told me," Drew said. "Just based on what it looks like to me. He's out there making sure he knows the [offensive] sets. I'm seeing the way the guys are reacting, and everybody is real upbeat. He gets out there [in practice] and the level of play goes up three notches."

The Lakers, well aware that Johnson previously has come close to coming back only to change his mind, are proceeding with caution.

Jerry West, the club's executive vice president, recently talked with Johnson about how any comeback should come now or not at all because of Johnson's age.

Johnson, who starred at point guard during his 12 seasons as a Laker, probably would be a versatile forward/guard if he played again. "If he's going to make up his mind, I think it's going to be soon," West said. "I don't know what's going to happen."

The prevalent rumor is that Johnson, if he returns, will do so next Friday, when the Lakers play the Chicago Bulls and superstar Michael Jordan at the Forum.

"If he's like me, he realizes what basketball meant to him, appreciates it more after being gone from it," Jordan said of Johnson. "If he wants to come back, he should."

Doctors said yesterday that Johnson is fine and that his health has been constant since 1992. But they do not know what kind of impact an NBA schedule would have.

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