'Being back with guys' joy to Magic Sees All-Star Game as a goodbye to fans


ORLANDO, Fla. -- The last thing anyone wants to do at a news conference is answer questions, and certainly not difficult questions.

Since Nov. 7, when Magic Johnson announced his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers because he had contracted the virus that leads to AIDS, he has been answering nothing but difficult questions about his life.

Yesterday, Johnson fielded the latest round, most concerning his participation in tomorrow's 42nd NBA All-Star Game.

Flashing his trademark smile, Johnson said he was looking forward to "being back with the guys," and said the midseason classic would give him the opportunity to say goodbye to his many fans on a national and worldwide scale.

"The first thing you miss from playing is being one of the boys," said Johnson. "You miss the competition and big games. I have a chance to have it one more time."

Johnson's return has touched off a flurry of comment around the league, with some players, such as Cleveland's Mark Price, expressing concern that Johnson's presence could pose a risk -- possibly infecting another competitor through bleeding from an open wound.

Johnson, who will appear in his 12th All-Star Game, discounted such fears, saying he would not have subjected other players to such a risk.

"I played full court with Larry Drew [a former Lakers teammate] this morning, and I've been playing five-on-five, four-on-four and so forth with guys for a month and a half and we've been in close contact and bumping and sweating and everything," said Johnson.

"I can give you 30 phone numbers of guys I've been playing with and nothing has happened. The only way you can overcome fear is get out there with me."

NBA commissioner David J. Stern said the league had been in consultation with a team of doctors from Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, led by Dr. David Rogers, the vice chairman of the Presidential Commission on AIDS.

The panel has assured league officials the risk of Johnson infecting other players was minimal at best.

"All we could do is get the best medical advice," said Stern. "Our medical experts were unanimous in all areas. I'm glad that Magic Johnson is playing All-Star Weekend and I'm the one that got to make the choice."

Stern said the league's team doctors would be meeting during the weekend to help the league implement a policy similar to a recent International Olympic Committee decree that any participant with an open wound must leave the court to have it treated.

That policy is expected to be in place by tomorrow's game.

The door to Johnson's participation was opened by fans who voted him into one of the two starting guard slots for the Western Conference team, behind Portland's Clyde Drexler and ahead of Tim Hardaway of Golden State.

Although Johnson retired just three days into the NBA season, All-Star Game ballots with his name had been printed and distributed.

Stern pooh-poohed talk, led by the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley and the Utah Jazz's Karl Malone, that Johnson's presence would upstage the showcase event.

"These [All-Star Weekend events] provide a spectacular stage for what we call the NBA family to provide for a very special member," said Stern. "If that gets a little more attention to Magic than any other player, I think they'll understand."

Johnson was coy about the number of minutes he would play, saying he would leave that up to West coach Don Nelson of Golden State, who has said he will let Johnson play for as long as he wants.

Johnson declined to predict how rusty his game would be after three months away from the NBA.

But he left no doubt about the special feeling he'll get from playing.

"I'm looking forward to Nellie [Nelson] stomping his feet at me like [Pat] Riley and [Mike] Dunleavy [Johnson's former Lakers coaches] used to do," said Johnson. "All of it will be great. I'll suck all of it up and bottle it and cherish it."

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