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Magic's smile still sunshine, but clouds looming behind it Health questions, fears remain for Laker, opponents


LOS ANGELES -- Magic Johnson is asked what happens if h has a bad day and he answers, "I'm not a bad-day person." What if there are nights he has to hold back? "I'm not a hold-back type guy."

No doubts at all? "No. If I had any I wouldn't be here." He shakes his head. "I got to play my game and there's no fun in holding back."

He smiles the brightest smile in sports. "The thing is" -- he spreads his arms wide, reassuringly, this is what he wants us to understand, to enjoy as much as he intends to -- "I'm back."

The smile works for him, always has. Works too well. It's not until you walk away that you wonder if, this time, Magic is hiding behind his smile.

Our first HIV-infected sports superstar says he intends to play most of this NBA season. At least 50 games, maybe 60, maybe more. ("If we need a win. . ." was how he put it.)

The doctors have told him there is no risk to himself, his teammates, his opponents. It is virtually impossible, they say, for the virus to be transmitted through athletic competition. Virtually impossible. Is that the same as an eight-run lead late in the game? Hard to say. We do know this: There are no shutouts on this field.

So there are questions that don't go away: What happens if he crashes into somebody and there's blood, Magic's blood? Will ++ spectators race to exits? Will the other team walk off? Run off?

According to Dr. John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins, "This is a real non-issue. It's never happened this way and there's no reason to think it should. People are saying, 'What if he gets cut and there's an exchange of blood?' Those what-ifs are really stretches of the imagination."

The Lakers are back in town after two weeks at their Hawaiian training camp. Last Friday night, they played an exhibition game against Portland and Magic was on the court for 27 minutes. There was another game the next night but without Magic, who " was flying home.

Tonight, the Lakers meet the 76ers. Magic plays. Tomorrow, if the Knicks and Lakers win tonight, the two teams face each other. But that's another night off for Magic. He and his doctors have put together a schedule, an attempt to keep the stress on Magic as low as possible.

"I don't mind being a guinea pig," Magic was saying yesterday. "I look forward to the opportunity. To see what'll happen. If they want to use me as an experiment, fine. As long as it's a basketball experiment."

The Lakers insist they're delighted by Magic's decision to return. Which should surprise, or convince, no one. They liked what they saw in Hawaii and expect much more. Byron Scott, Magic's teammate for eight seasons, says, "He's a man who wants to play a game he's given so much to. Why not let him do it? I know we'll be a better team with him. I'll get the ball when I want it and when I need it. We'll be a more relaxed team with him because he takes on more of the burden."

Scott wants us to understand, "I'm concerned about Earvin. Not the basketball. I want to see him around for 100 years. I want him to see my son beating up on his son."

Playing alongside a man who is HIV-positive -- "that element" as Scott calls it -- is hardly a concern, he says. "I haven't thought about that element at all," Scott insists. "I don't know how it is for the rest of the league but when he's out there with us, it's irrelevant."

Another Laker, Sam Perkins, is willing to admit there are NBA players, but nobody he wanted to name, "who wished he stayed away."

Virtually impossible, it seems, isn't going to satisfy everybody. "If he wants to play, he deserves to play," said Rod Strickland, who guarded Magic on Friday night.

The NBA put together a three-day AIDS education seminar in August at Johns Hopkins for player representatives. The reps spread Dr. Bartlett's word to their teammates and Strickland says, "I'm satisfied with that. But I'm sure it's going to be on people's minds. You can't fault anyone for having thoughts about that."

Magic understands. "I'm coming back to show people that if you have a virus, or whatever, you can still enjoy life," he said. "That there's still living to be done."

For Magic, that means stepping on a basketball court. Last Friday, 10 seconds into the game, Strickland let Magic have a 20-footer. He hit it. Magic tried only three other shots and finished with five points, 14 assists. Didn't drive the lane, didn't post-up, and didn't have all the quickness, or the finely tuned instincts he will need to guard quick point guards like Strickland.

The NBA, night after night after night, isn't the same league as Lithuania, Angola, Croatia, to name Magic's three best nights in the Olympics. But "just playing the [Friday] game," Magic said yesterday, waiting for practice to begin, his eyes shining, "seeing the passing lanes, finding the open man, getting into the gaps and creating. . .only I know how much I've missed it. This is what makes me happy. This is where I have my fun."

Fun? It's his word. Nobody else is using it.

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