'I'm Still Strong'

After a thrilling comeback in Barcelona, Magic Johnson talked hearteningly of his future with SI's Jack McCallum
August 16, 1992

Sports Illustrated: Let's cut to the chase. What's your timetable for making a decision to return to the NBA? And has the Dream Team experience been substantial enough for you to judge your ability to return to pro basketball?

Magic Johnson: I'll make a decision probably about a month or three weeks after I get back home. The practices, workouts and games have been enough to tell me that, yes, basketballwise, everything is fine. So it will come down to a medical decision. I will meet with my doctors, get my physical, listen to what they have to say and talk it over with my wife.

SI: Is owning a team still in your thinking?

MJ: By all means. I'm meeting with [NBA commissioner] David Stern in September to talk about that.

SI: You can't be a player-owner, is that correct?

MJ: David Stern has told me that it's not allowed. It would have been nice to be the first man to be a player-owner, but it's not something I had counted on much.

SI: On the court, have you performed better, worse or about the way you thought you would?

MJ: I've performed the way I expected. All the while I was away from the NBA I kept myself in shape and I kept my timing, and I'm still strong.

SI: In any way are you any better as a player for having missed last season?

MJ: Yes. I'm healthier and stronger. During an NBA season, when you might play all the way to June, your body doesn't have a chance to recover. You might get one thing fixed, but then something else is still a problem. But this year I obviously didn't have to deal with that. And I started on a serious weight-training program, and I feel anywhere from 70 to 100 percent better.

SI: Could you explain the state of your health right now, specifically regarding the HIV virus?

MJ: My T-cell count is up; that is, it's higher and better than before I found out I had the virus. T cells help you tight off colds, flu, different things you come down with. What the virus does is beat up those T cells, and that causes you to get AIDS, because you don't have a healthy immune system. As long as your T-cell count is good, you are beating the disease.

SI: Your fight against the virus essentially consists of daily doses of AZT, healthy diet....

MJ: I take my medication, I watch my diet—-which has not been quite as easy-over here as it is at home—I rest, I work out.

SI: I notice you always say "medication" rather than "AZT." Why is that?

MJ: Everybody knows about the AZT, but I don't like to get specific about it because then, with some people, I get bogged down in talking about the way I'm fighting off AIDS. See, everybody's got a cure.

SI: Do people try to give you offbeat cures?

MJ: Oh, all the time, all the time. Things you wouldn't believe, a hundred cures, a thousand cures. They send them to me, they give them to me, they send them to my office. Somebody not long ago sent a jar of what looked like milk that was two or three months old and said, "If you drink this, you'll get better." Can you imagine actually trying that from somebody you don't know? Somebody else suggested that I drink all my blood and replace it with warm blood. I have a whole pile of these "cures" in my office back home.

SI: During All-Star weekend last February you talked about how many people have been living with either the virus or the disease for a long time. Do you still meet them?

MJ: They're out there. Ten years, 12 years, 14 years. They come up to me all the time and introduce themselves.

SI: People with the virus or with full-blown AIDS?

MJ: Both. Look at Elizabeth Glaser [the wife of actor-director Paul Michael Glaser; she contracted the disease after a blood transfusion]. She's had [the virus] for 11 years, but she won't give in. She keeps going and going and going. She is a model for me and should be for anyone with any disease. And that type of I'm-going-to-fight-it attitude is the most important thing. That's my Number One weapon, too.

SI: One of your goals was to make people forget that an HIV-positive player is on the court when you are competing. Do you think you've succeeded?

MJ: I know I have. Nobody has said anything about it since I've been over here.

SI: Is anyone on the U.S. team curious about the disease, and are you asked questions about it?

MJ: John Stockton asked me about it early, when we were in La Jolla [the California site of the Dream Team's pre-Olympic training]. He was curious about what it took to fight it off, and we talked a long time about it. I had already talked to Michael [Jordan] about it and a couple of the others I know well, like Clyde Drexler. But by this time I think everybody on the team is pretty educated, and we don't have to talk about it. I had a long conversation with Karl Malone a few nights ago, but it was about other things.

SI: I would guess that such conversations must be enjoyable, because you don't have a chance to do them with these guys during the regular season, right?

MJ: It's been the best thing about this Olympic experience. I didn't know, for example, how much Karl was into business and that he had used me, the way I've done things, as his model. David [Robinson] and I talk about religion, and he's told me things I didn't know about the Bible. Patrick Ewing's sense of humor is something I never noticed before. And there's not a day goes by that Michael and I don't do something together, or at least talk for a long time.

SI: Before you came over here, I think most people would have thought that Jordan was, on a world scale, a more popular athlete than you. But it hasn't developed that way. During your stay in Monte Carlo before the Olympics and here in Spain, you clearly have been the more popular. Have you been able to analyze the phenomenon and does it go beyond fans recognizing your fight against AIDS?

MJ: [Shakes his head for a long time.] I agree that, yes, Michael was more popular and well known. It's strange, it really is. I think, first of all, a lot of people didn't think I was going to be here. That's what was being written, mostly in Europe. So when they saw me, they were really happy, for me and for themselves. What happened is that people missed seeing my style, the passes, the fakes and all that. Michael and these guys played for a whole season, but I'm getting welcomed back in a way. And then, you know what else it is? Everybody wants me to smile. Everybody. I'll hear that in my sleep. "Ma-jeek! Ma-jeek! Please smile for me. Smile for the camera." And as you know, I've always been able to smile.

SI: Has the attention made you feel good?

MJ: Real good. Real, real good. Marching in the opening ceremonies was one of the wildest, most incredible things that ever happened to me. Everybody running over, breaking lines to get an autograph, a picture or to just shake my hand, I never thought that would happen. Never. We're used to attention, but I just couldn't believe that that many athletes from that many countries would want to meet me.

SI: You seemed to earn a lot of points by marching. Michael and the two other players from the 1984 team, Ewing and Chris Mullin, did not. You said that you understood their decision, but I'm wondering if you would march if you came to the Olympics again.

MJ: Being me, yes, I probably would. But everybody's different. Michael wants to play golf, and I like to go to events. Going to sporting events, you've got to understand, is a big part of my life. You know what I'm looking forward to? The start of the football season. I'll be going to all the Los Angeles Raider games and other games. I like being out, and Michael doesn't. You can't put a guy down for having a different opinion on it. And we don't talk about that at all. That's the best part of our relationship. We can enjoy each other's success and not worry about the fact that we handle it differently. I understand that he makes more money than I do, and that's great. He understands that I get something out of being in public and things like that. There is no jealousy, absolutely none.

SI: You've always been a leader, and from the beginning, you seized the reins of this team. That isn't surprising, but what is a little surprising is that everyone seems to have accepted it, Michael included, Larry Bird included, Karl Malone included. Why has it developed like that?

MJ: I just feel comfortable in that role, even on a team of superstars like this one, and I'm not sure that anyone else does. Larry could certainly be a leader, but he just doesn't want it that much. And I think the players have confidence that I won't steer them wrong, that I'll bring them the right information.

SI: What's an example of something you've had to decide as a team?

MJ: We've been invited by everybody to everything, 10 things a day, every day. A millionaire wanted us to come to dinner, so I got the guys together for a vote.

SI: Did you go?

MJ: No. They wanted suit and tie. [Laughs.] Anybody who wants us in suit and tie can forget it. I just come up with things for us to do. Going as a group to the women's game, for example. I got it organized, talked about the times, saw who wanted to go.

SI: Does the criticism you guys have received about staying in a plush hotel, some of it from USOC president-elect LeRoy Walker, hurt?

MJ: It hurts a lot. And what makes me mad is that these guys haven't come to see what the facts are, they haven't done their homework. They should have gone someplace with us or just walked around and seen the people outside the hotel that we talk to and sign autographs for. When we leave the hotel, it's like the pope is leaving. It surprises me every time I see it. That's what we're dealing with all the time, every minute of the day. So don't just make accusations about us without getting to know the situation.

SI: The circumstances that led to the attention the Dream Team is getting this year—do you think they'll be present again in 1996 or 2000?

MJ: No. We have grabbed the world in a way that won't happen again. The excitement of the fans, the excitement of the other players who don't care how bad you beat them as long as they get a picture. And I don't think you'll have 12 guys together like this, cither, 12 guys with big egos who have put them aside.

SI: Was the ego thing a worry for you coming in here? And when did you know that everything was going to be O.K.?

MJ: It was my biggest worry. And I'll tell you exactly when we came together—after the young guys [the college development team selected to scrimmage the Olympic team in La Jolla] crushed us in that practice scrimmage. The next day, instead of anyone blaming anyone, we all just came together and said, "Let's go, let's show them what the NBA is all about." And we did. After that it was easy.

SI: Returning once more to next season, you made an offhand comment in Monte Carlo about the possibility of playing for another team. Just to make things clear, there is no scenario, except a trade, by which you could be playing for any other team than the Lakers, correct?

MJ: If they want to go in a different direction—young, building for the future—then maybe that's not the team for me. I have been with the Lakers when they always wanted to win the championship, always tried to get the pieces they needed to do that. It would be hard to play for them if they didn't want to go after the championship.

SI: Do I detect a lot of concern on your part that the Lakers have decided to become a "team of the future" rather than a championship contender?

MJ: I don't know that. I haven't talked to [general manager] Jerry West in any great detail. I did talk to [team owner] Dr. Buss when the story came out that made it sound like I was looking to play somewhere else. [Laughs.] He made sure he called me. I hope that if I play it's with the Lakers.

SI: Another thing to clear up: There was some discussion recently that if you came back, you would limit yourself to, say, only 65 games or 68 games. Is that part of your thinking?

MJ: Naturally, I wouldn't like it. But I've got to listen to what my doctor says. He just got back from a big AIDS summit and has all kinds of new information. We will sit down sometime in September and discuss all of it.

SI: In essence, you're a study group of one six-foot-nine-inch world-class athlete with the AIDS virus who is trying to come back and play a grueling sport.

MJ: Well, I guess I am. But there's got to be a first, right?

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThe fans at the Olympics loved Magic, and he reveled in their enthusiasm. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEINEarvin III, known as EJ, accompanied his dad to Barcelona. ILLUSTRATION

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