Johnson hasn't lost magic touch Lakers great is quick to erase doubts in return after 4 years

Ripken-like night in L.A.

Has 19 points, 10 assists off bench in victory

January 31, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- He still can play. Man, he still can play. Doesn't matter if he's HIV-positive. Doesn't matter if he's a power forward or point guard. Magic Johnson is still Magic Johnson.

It was just like old times last night, when Johnson played in his first NBA game in more than four years. He ran the fast break. He threw no-look passes. He lifted the Los Angeles Lakers to another level.

Johnson played 27 minutes, finishing with 19 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in the Lakers' 128-118 victory over Golden State. Bring on Michael Jordan. Bring on the rest of the NBA. Let the fun begin.

That's what this night was -- fun. A night for Los Angeles to celebrate the return of its most popular athlete. The best night in sports since Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

"I can't even tell you how it feels," Johnson said. "It was one of the most exciting days of my life. I never thought I'd be back here doing this again, especially after the last time I retired. God is good, that's all I can say. I had so much fun."

Two minutes, 21 seconds, that's all it took for Johnson to enter the game. He rose from the bench, peeled off his warm-ups and reported to the scorer's table. The fans at the Great Western Forum stood and roared.

Finally, it was time.

No longer was he Magic Johnson, retired victim of the AIDS virus. He was Magic Johnson, running to his position along the lane for a foul shot, lining up next to Golden State rookie Joe Smith.

How did he feel?

"Scared and nervous," Johnson said. "I was in outer space. I was somewhere else. What really got me was when they came to me on the first play. I went, 'Oh, man.'

"At first, I couldn't feel the game. It was one of the first times in my life I couldn't feel what was going on. Then Joe Smith hit me in the back, and [Rony] Seikaly in my chest, bam-bam. I knew I was in the game."

He scored six points in his first six minutes, made seven of his 14 shots, committed four turnovers. The other Lakers were as excited as he was. "I couldn't wait to get a pass from him," said Cedric Ceballos, who scored 33 points.

Johnson's new position is power forward, but he also played the point -- at the urging, he said, of point guards Nick Van Exel and Sedale Threatt. The Lakers recorded season highs for points (128), points in a half (72) and assists (44).

If Johnson was a tad rusty, a step slow on defense, who noticed?

"It's like sunshine walked into the gym today, and 17,000 people got sunburned," Ceballos said.

Johnson, 36, took the court with the Lakers at 7:20 PDT, and the fans cheered his every layup during pre-game warm-ups.

As usual, the sound system blared "I Love L.A.," this time with an added resonance. L.A. was again a place to love last night, all because of Magic.

In a city torn apart by Rodney King and O. J. Simpson, a city with no football team and little sports excitement, The Comeback was indeed cause for celebration.

To think, last night was a mere warm-up. Tickets for Friday night's game against Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are selling for as much as $1,000.

Perhaps Johnson will be less nervous then. Before the game, he stopped when he put on his gold Lakers jersey for his first meaningful NBA game since the 1991 NBA Finals.

"I can't even begin to tell you how this feels," he said.

It all started with a phone call from Van Exel and Eddie Jones 10 days ago. They sensed all Johnson needed was a push. Basically, they asked him, "Pretty please?"

"It was like, 'Magic, we know you're thinking about it,' " Jones said. " 'We want to make your decision a little easier. We want you to know we want you back.' "

And now?

"I think we're the best in the West, no question about that," Threatt said. "I know we'll get 50 wins now."

Certainly, the Lakers (25-18) are a much better team, and judging by last night's performance, they might click faster than the Bulls did after Jordan returned.

Still, this is not only about this season. It's also about next season, and a player on the other side of the continent.

It's about Shaq.

He's a free agent. He wants to go Hollywood while remaining with a contender. The Lakers would be a perfect fit, if Johnson's comeback is a success.

For Shaq, the only thing better than playing for the Magic would be playing with Magic. Who do you think inspired Anfernee Hardaway, anyway?

In fact, Lakers assistant coach Michael Cooper thinks the biggest difference in Johnson's game now is that he's a better passer.

Say what?

"He's always been a great passer," said Cooper, Johnson's former teammate with the Lakers. "Now, he's a great, great, great passer."

Keep reading, Shaq.

Here's Lakers coach Del Harris:

"Even with our standard plays, once the ball gets in his hands, that play takes on a new meaning. He will be able to create things other players just can't."

It started last night.

Like it never ended.

Magic's night

Minutes 27

Field goals 7-for-14

Free throws 5-for-6

Points 19

Rebounds 8

Assists 10

Steals 2

Turnovers 4

Fouls 5

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