With him back, we've all moved forward

January 30, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

WESTCHESTER, Calif. -- Magic Johnson is back. And the world is a better place.

It's better because we know so much more about HIV than in November 1992, when Johnson ended his first NBA comeback in response to a player outcry.

And it's better because the idea of Johnson playing basketball again, four years after testing positive for the virus that causes AIDS, is a wonderful thing.

He's a 255-pound power forward now, but he was slapping hands, running the break and sinking hook shots like the Magic of old at practice yesterday.

Tonight, he'll make his return against the Golden State Warriors, perhaps matching up against Joe Smith, who was not yet 5 years old when Johnson won his first NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980.

"This is for everyone who has any kind of handicap," Johnson said yesterday after practicing with the Lakers at Loyola Marymount University. "Life goes on. Life has gone on for me. It will continue to go on."

And life, for Magic Johnson, is basketball.

He loves to play, like Michael Jordan, like Mario Lemieux, like all of the great ones. He's healthy and fit, and now that he's 36, he recognizes "it's now or never."

Let's not confuse his comeback with Jordan's. Jordan was away less than two season, Johnson four. Jordan changed his number for marketing purposes. Johnson's motives are considerably purer.

"I wanted my son and daughter to see me play," he said, referring to his son, Earvin III, 3, and baby daughter Elisa. "I didn't go out the way I wanted to go out before. That's the reason I'm back."

College students wearing backpacks watched him practice yesterday. The excitement will only grow tonight at the Great Western Forum, and again Friday night when the Lakers face Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

This is the way it should have been in '92, when Johnson tried his first comeback. But everyone was scared then. Everyone thought if he bled on the court, he might infect half the NBA.

Doctors explained that the risk of dying in a car accident was greater than the risk of contracting HIV while playing basketball. But Karl Malone and others expressed concern, and Johnson went back into retirement.

Now Malone is leading the chorus welcoming Johnson's return. No one knows how long he will play, no one should even venture a guess. Every game will be special. Every game will be a celebration of life.

"People say, 'What does he add to the team?' " Lakers coach Del Harris said. "A joy for life, a joy for playing, a joy for practicing that can't be duplicated anywhere else."

Johnson is 27 pounds heavier than when he left, "five steps slower," but stronger. For all anyone knows, he might be among the 5-10 percent of HIV-positive people who fall into the category of "chronic non-progressors," meaning he could go 20 years or longer without complications.

"Everything is great," he said. "We don't have a problem with nothing, whether it's back-to-back [games] or banging. It's green light. Full steam ahead. I wouldn't be back if I couldn't go."

Or if the panic hadn't subsided.

Commissioner David Stern established infection control procedures after Johnson retired on Nov. 7, 1991. Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Hakeem Olajuwon -- they play against Johnson in the summer. They know it's OK.

"When you educate yourself, you don't have to think all those crazy thoughts. You understand what's going on," Johnson said. "That's been the biggest thing. I owe all that to David Stern.

"He brought in that program to teach the whole league -- all the players, all the coaches, all the trainers, everybody -- about HIV. Now, when someone gets cut, you see he has to come out of the game. Everyone is more aware.

Johnson said he is at peace now, unafraid of criticism. He flashed his famous smile repeatedly during an informal news conference outside the Loyola Marymount gym. He ranked this comeback with the happiest moments in his life.

"I should have been back a long time ago," he said, but now, at last, the time is right. The Lakers (24-18) likely are heading to the playoffs. The same players who disgusted Johnson when he coached them at the end of the 1993-94 season have matured.

Nick Van Exel, 24, and Eddie Jones, 24, were pivotal in persuading Johnson to rejoin the team. The two guards phoned him about 10 days ago and Harris said Johnson was "touched" by their call.

Johnson said he sought their approval and Harris' approval. He also wanted the approval of his wife, Cookie, but that wasn't a problem. "She was pushing me back, saying, 'I'm tired of hearing this, go back.' "

Harris doesn't plan to start him right away, but Johnson joked that he will pester him for playing time. "Soon as the ball goes up," he said. "And you know what might happen? I might just get up and go in, I'll be so excited."

He sold his 5 percent interest in the Lakers back to owner Jerry Buss ["I thought I was a good part-owner. I kept my mouth shut and just collected checks."]. He will do what he was born to do. Play basketball.

"It's on, no matter who says what, no matter what happens," Johnson said. "I'm in there all the way. This is it. No turning back."

The old Lakers were "Showtime."

Johnson said this would be the "Late Show."

May it have the longest possible run.

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