Some old fears return to NBA along with Magic


CHICAGO -- During a particularly rugged practice last summer for the U.S. Olympic basketball team, forward Karl Malone looked down and noticed a streak of crimson across his forearm.


Malone stopped as action continued around him. He scanned the playing floor, from one basket to the other, Commentary

his eyes darting quickly until he found the man he was looking for: Magic Johnson.

Johnson was not bleeding.

The games continued, and they will again in the NBA this season for the great Magic Johnson. But the questions, concerns, doubts, hopes and fears remain.

Johnson yesterday announced that he would return to the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA nearly 11 months after his stunning disclosure that he had the virus that causes AIDS and would have to retire from basketball.

But after a successful "goodbye" at the NBA All-Star Game last winter, tearfully watching his No. 32 number retired by the Lakers and his gold-medal tour with the NBA superstars in the Olympics, Johnson returns to the Lakers, committed to 50 to 60 of the 82 regular-season games, plus the playoffs.

"I think the positives outweigh all the risks," Johnson said at a news conference. "I was in a suit every other day, taking care of all the businesses that I own and run. I had fun ... but God put me here to play basketball and do my thing on the court."

Why he's returning seems answered for now. But for how long and at what price?

Perhaps the principal question is whether a return to basketball might hasten Johnson's death. That supposedly was why he retired last November, saying then that doctors were optimistic but feared what the strain of a basketball schedule would do to Johnson.

Yesterday, Johnson's doctor, Michael Mellman, who is also the Lakers team physician, conceded Johnson's case is unique, but he also declined to say whether he had advised for or against a return.

"What we did is educate Earvin as well as we could," Mellman said. "My public opinion will not be offered." And Johnson did say vaguely that "the doctors said some things about it [his decision to return]."

Hardly a strong endorsement, although NBA commissioner David Stern said Johnson's doctors advised the league they are comfortable with Johnson's decision.

"Selfishly, as fans, we're all glad he's back," said Chicago attorney George Andrews, Johnson's agent for almost a decade until the late 1980s. "But for his family, we hope and pray this is the right decision."

The translation is that nobody, even the doctor, is absolutely sure.

"We hope only good comes out of it for Magic and the NBA," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "But this should also draw attention to AIDS and the HIV virus and remove some of the stigma from people as they see someone participating in his career."

But what kind of a career will it be for Johnson, 33, one of the league's all-time greats who was probably only a few years from retirement had he not contracted the virus.

He says he won't play many back-to-back games. Having played in the Olympics and worked out regularly, he's in good shape.

There's no doubt Johnson's return makes the Lakers a contender again. They added veteran center James Edwards during the off-season, and center Vlade Divac and perennial All-Star forward James Worthy are expected to be healthy after surgery kept them out much of last season. Throw in Sam Perkins and A.C. Green, and led by Johnson, they look like a major factor.

There was some talk in Los Angeles that Johnson's return would prove a sideshow throughout the season and the team wanted to get on with its rebuilding. Some of this stemmed from annoyed comments last summer from general manager Jerry West, who then said Johnson's uncertainty "makes it difficult to plan" and that "I honestly don't know what's going on."

Yesterday, West said he was thrilled with Johnson's return, and the Lakers apparently had some notion because they printed two yearbook/media guides, one with a team collage and one with nine pictures of Johnson. That's the one that goes into production now.

Randy Pfund, who succeeded Mike Dunleavy as coach after last season, joked, "I prepared all summer for Earvin not to be here. So now I've got 100 pages of motion offense to put back in the file.

"Nothing about the decision," said Pfund, "won't make the Lakers a better team and this a better year for Lakers fans and NBA fans."

It's clearly the popular move, and it will help keep the Forum sold out. Fan interest waned last season because of Johnson's absence and the Lakers' performance; they almost missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. But Pfund faces a balancing act between Johnson's desire to play and the team concept.

Then there's the question about contact. Fears rose last winter before the All-Star Game as players wondered both privately and publicly about playing against Johnson, about an exposed cut and what could happen.

The NBA brought in medical specialists to assure players and media all was safe, and since then instituted an open-cut rule, requiring a player who is bleeding to leave the court until the bleeding stops.

But Johnson has basically played only in exhibitions since then: the All-Star Game, the Olympics against inferior opposition and pickup games around Los Angeles. What it will be like for Johnson and opponents in rugged NBA contact remains uncertain. What players are thinking about it remains private, although teammate A.C. Green said yesterday Johnson "is not the type of person to put anyone in a bad position intentionally."

Johnson is perhaps the most liked, respected and cooperative player in pro sports. Recently retired Larry Bird said he's happy he "gets to watch him play again."

Johnson says he wants to play. And no one has demonstrated fully why he cannot. This nation is not supposed to discriminate because of age, race, sex or illness. And, it's clear, the games matter more than anything to the man.

Let's just hope it all proves worthwhile for all those involved.

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