Johnson shows he's still got it Lakers great is quick to leave bench, doubts after 4 years away; A Ripken-like night; 'Point forward' scores 6 in first 6 minutes


INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- He wasn't introduced, because he didn't start. Magic Johnson was gone more than four years. The crowd could wait just a bit longer to welcome him back.

Then, with 2:21 gone, 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.

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

There he was moments later, a power forward now, and not a point guard. There he was, posting up Smith for a hook shot, missing to the groans of the crowd.

He recorded his first assist a short while later, setting up a three-pointer by Anthony Peeler. And he scored his first points a short while after that, driving down the lane in transition for a layup.

He hit a left-handed hook over Smith in the lane.

He faked out Latrell Sprewell for another hoop.

He scored six points in his first six minutes.

Oh, what a night, perhaps the best in sports since Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Johnson took the court with the Lakers at 7:20 PDT, and the sellout crowd cheered his every layup during warm-ups.

As usual, the sound system blared "I Love L.A.," but 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 Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are selling for as much as $1,000.

All this, because of a phone call.

A phone call from Lakers guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel.

Dialing C-O-M-E-B-A-C-K.

"It worked," Jones said with a smile after yesterday's shoot-around. "It got him back."

And there was Johnson last night, dressing at his old locker, trying to contain his excitement.

"I'm definitely nervous," he said. "Anybody would be. Everything is brand new. It's almost like your first NBA game.

"I'm trying to relax, trying to keep calm and everything. I know I'm going to be too high."

Johnson stopped when he put on his gold Lakers jersey for his first NBA game that counted since Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals.

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

Jones and Van Exel made their now-famous call 10 days ago, sensing all Johnson needed was a push. Basically, they asked him, "Pretty please?"

"Magic is a down-to-earth individual," Jones said. "He always came up and told us things. He always said we can ask him things.

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

They wanted him back because he'll make the Lakers a better team, maybe not right away, but certainly by the playoffs.

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

The NBA Finals?

Well, the Bulls didn't click right away after Michael Jordan returned. Johnson missed four complete seasons, not one, so the adjustment might take even longer.

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?

Johnson isn't a point guard anymore, but at point forward or whatever he is, it stands to reason that he could keep Shaq happy.

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.

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