Orlando, Sí, Barcelona...?
Basketball fans around the world will see Magic Johnson in action at least one more time. NBA sources confirmed last week that commissioner David Stern will create a 13th spot for Johnson on the Western Conference All-Star team. Whether Magic plays two minutes or 20 on Feb. 9 at Orlando Arena will depend on his physical condition and the wishes of the as-yet-undetermined Western Conference coach.
Though he had not played in a regular-season game before his Nov. 7 announcement that he was retiring from the Lakers because he had tested positive for the HIV virus, Magic will likely finish second in the balloting (behind Trail Blazer Clyde Drexler) among Western Conference guards. But Stern feels it would not be fair for Johnson, who is on the Lakers' injured reserve list, to take the spot of an active backcourtman. Neither does Stern believe that anyone will begrudge Magic, one of the game's greatest players and ambassadors, a chance to compete in the NBA's showpiece exhibition.
The question of whether Johnson will compete for the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, though, is cloudier. Magic himself has never wavered in his desire to play. His daily workouts, which include both basketball-oriented drills and a four-mile run, have continued nonstop, and the 226 pounds he is carrying matches his playing weight. He looks good and says he feels good. But no matter how much Magic wants to make it a simple issue—I was chosen (the U.S. team was selected before Magic announced his retirement from the Lakers), I feel good, therefore I should play—it is not.
At least one U.S. Olympian has expressed private reservations about Johnson's participation. "I don't see how any of us could feel we were completely safe if he got injured and started bleeding," said the player. One NBA coach, a former player, says he remembers at least four incidents when "teeth have gone through skin" during skirmishes under the basket. "Can players really put that out of their minds?" wondered this coach.
Such fears are not justified on medical grounds, says Dr. David E. Rogers, the Cornell University professor of medicine who was recently hired by the NBA as a consultant on AIDS. "The risks of someone passing the disease along during athletic competition are small," says Rogers. "In 10 years of studying the disease there is no evidence of it ever happening. The chances are infinitesimal."
The central board of FIBA, basketball's international governing body, passed a rule last month that states, "Players who are bleeding must leave the court and can only re-enter the court if the bleeding has stopped." Said one person who was at the meeting in which that rule was enacted: "No one connected it to Magic, but, obviously, it is, in effect, the Magic rule." Would the medical evidence along with the Magic rule be enough to satisfy Johnson's teammates, who would be scrimmaging against him and living with him for some seven weeks during the summer? Who knows?
At present, there is no rule that could bar Magic from playing. Beyond that, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch is on record as saying Johnson is welcome in Barcelona, either as a participant or nonplaying representative. The mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragall, has said he wants Magic in his city "as a symbol of Olympic valor." FIBA will not be meeting before the Olympics, and its spokesman, Florian Waninger, said last week, "Magic would be an excellent example for other people with the virus. We would encourage him to play if he can." Neither USA Basketball, the governing body of the sport in this country, nor the NBA is empowered to take a stand on eligibility one way or the other, and both are disinclined to do so in any event. "If Magic is physically able to play," says Stern, "I'm one of the millions of fans who want to see him."
Stern's statements aside, there is much trepidation about Johnson's participating, and some American basketball officials hope he voluntarily withdraws. That is by no means a universal feeling, but it is there.
"I know this much," says one executive of an Eastern Conference team. "If it was anybody but Magic in this situation, there would be no question. He would not be playing."
Poll: A Magical Replacement
If Magic doesn't play in the Olympics, who should take his place? An intriguing question, and precisely the one that was asked in this week's poll of coaches and general managers. Of greatest interest was whether Isiah Thomas—his exclusion from the U.S. team announced last September created much controversy around the NBA—would be the choice this time around.
He was not. The Warriors' Tim Hardaway was, with six of 21 votes. Though technically not a point guard, Thomas's backcourt running mate, Joe Dumars, got four votes. Thomas, who got three votes, was even outpolled by the Cavaliers' Mark Price, who got 3.5 votes—one Eastern Conference general manager divided his ballot between Price and the Suns' Kevin Johnson, who got 2.5 votes. Two other players each received a vote—the Trail Blazers' Clyde Drexler (a shooting guard all the way) and the Celtics' Dee Brown. Brown, who is best known for winning the league's slam-dunk contest last February when he was a rookie, has been out since the beginning of the season with an injured left knee. But the Eastern Conference coach who voted for him said, "I think this team needs some defense, and Dee is a young guard who can apply defensive pressure all the way up the floor."
All additions to the team, which will ultimately have 12 players, will be made by the 13-member selection committee of NBA, college and federation officials, none of whose members participated in this week's poll. (Spur general manager Bob Bass, an Olympic selector, would not even cast a vote anonymously in the SI poll because a gag order has been placed on the committee.) But both the closeness of the vote and the number of players nominated point to the fact that the selection of a replacement for Magic, if necessary, will be difficult. And the sentiments of some of the respondents indicate that in all probability Thomas will not be the man. Two coaches and one general manager used the phrase "can of worms" when asked what would happen if Isiah were added.
Righting a Wrong?
Jeff Ruland, the 275-pounder who looks like he could be the bouncer at the world's toughest topless bar, figured prominently in the darkest day in 76ers' history—June 16, 1986. Owner Harold Katz first peddled Moses Malone, Terry Catledge and two first-round draft picks to the Bullets for Ruland and Cliff Robinson and then traded the first pick in the draft (who turned out to be Brad Daugherty) to the Cavaliers for Roy Hinson and cash. Denouement? Malone, Catledge and Daugherty are still productive players. But the injury-prone Robinson played only 131 games for the Sixers over three seasons before retiring. The somewhat less injury-prone Hinson played in only 105 games before being traded to the Nets and is now on injured reserve, and the gutty Ruland played in only five games before a serious knee injury forced him to the sidelines, seemingly for good, in 1986.
But now, at 33, Ruland is back in Philly—he had been an assistant coach at his alma mater, Iona, this season—beginning what could become the most incredible comeback in NBA history. As of Sunday, he had played in three games for the Sixers, averaging 8.7 points and 4.7 rebounds. He endured years of pain before undergoing an operation last summer in which holes were bored into the bone around his left knee to form scar tissue, which acts, in effect, like the cartilage that is no longer there. "It's not the same type of cartilage that God gave us," says 76er team physician Jack McPhilemy. "It's less elastic and perhaps less functional. But it's more functional than nothing."
And a limited Ruland is much better than no Ruland. The deal might look like another desperation ploy by Katz, one of the league's most meddlesome owners, but it makes sense. Ruland gets the chance to play, which is all he wanted. The Sixers get a center who will actually set picks and grab some tough rebounds; of Philadelphia's other two centers, the human yardstick, Manute Bol, is unable to do the former, and Charles Shackleford seems unwilling to do the latter, having reached double figures in rebounds in only three of the Sixers' 35 games. And Katz gets the chance to save a little face...years after he lost it.