, life made no sense last week in Los Angeles, where the Lakers signed a 36-year-old has-been point guard, has-been announcer, has-been coach and has-been owner who has been off NBA courts for almost five seasons; is 30 pounds over his playing weight; runs like a man with bunions; couldn't leap a tall juice glass; favors a James Naismith-era, flat-footed, shot put heave for a jumper; and, oh, yes, is HIV positive.
Yet grown men in Armani suits waited an hour outside the arena doors just for a glimpse of him. Women begged to kiss him. The newspapers played it Page One, above the fold. Giddy scalpers were suddenly asking $10,000 for four tickets. Movie stars hopped chartered jets from the East Coast just to say they were courtside. Sharon Stone couldn't get tickets.
Police precincts reported random outbreaks of euphoria. Vice presidents of reputable accounting firms closed their office doors and beat on their desks in joy. One longtime fan in suburban Downey screamed so loud at the news that his kids cried.
February 12, 1996
TIME and Newsweek both photographed him for their covers. Interview requests came in a blizzard. World interest was so bonkers that distinguished writers were forced to sit in the arena's rafters and type by the light of electric billboards. USA Basketball was already thinking about putting the man on the
1996 U.S. Olympic team—after one game.
And when this guy finally made a basket, you would have thought D.B. Cooper had walked into the joint. He took a feed from teammate Cedric Ceballos, drove in non-chalantly from the right side and threw in a little scoop you have seen a thousand times. The Forum, once again Fabulous, quaked, as strobes bathed him in exploding light and reporters scribbled madly in their notebooks.
There were still 15 minutes to go before tip-off.
You think maybe this Earvin (Magic) Johnson meant something to people?
"I feel like Louis Armstrong when he saw Dolly," said longtime Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn before the game. "'It's so nice to have you back where you belong.'"
Well, not entirely. Johnson is a power forward now, not a point guard. For the first time since the fifth grade, he is not
starting. On the break he dishes to guys named Blount and Lynch, not Wilkes and Worthy. Most of the cast and crew of Showtime are
gone, and Dancing Barry has left the building for good.
Magic plays as if he's lefthanded now, at least when he's using
the hook shot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bequeathed to him. He seems to
shoot the trey uglier and higher but better now. And his old
driver's-license picture probably wouldn't stand up as an I.D.
anymore, seeing how his forehead is annexing a little more of
his hairline. His arms are approaching massive, and his stomach
isn't that brick street it used to be. But that megawatt smile
could still drain Boulder Dam. And those hands still get the
ball to open men before they even know they are open. Those legs
still come whirling like a Roto-Rooter through the lane.
Last week, against the Golden State Warriors, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz—and against all odds—Magic Johnson was back playing NBA basketball 55 months after he left it, and the world has two little boys to thank for that. One is Earvin Johnson III, now three years old. "That's why I came back," Magic says. "So my little boy could see me play." The other little boy is Earvin Johnson Jr., who, despite his millions, his businesses and his age, could not resist the game he loves.
Still, it took full-court telephone pressure to make it happen. In the last three weeks Lakers coach Del Harris saw just what kind of spell came over his team whenever Magic worked out with the Lakers. Harris finally called Magic's agent, Lon Rosen, and said, "Look, I don't care if I have to sleep outside his house, I gotta have this guy." Harris called Magic and told him how much the Lakers wanted him back. Lakers vice president of basketball operations Jerry West called him and declared, "Now or maybe never." Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers general manager, called. The team's points-and-minutes leader, Ceballos, called. Finally, Lakers guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel conference-called. Compared with previous overtures, the message this time was different. It was not "You should come back." It was "We want you back."
The deal was consummated on Jan. 29 in a doctor's office. Rosen
thought there would be too much craziness at the Forum, so he
had everybody meet at the Inglewood office of the team
physician, Steve Lombardo. O.K., doctor, you've got Mrs.
Thorncrab's high colonic in Room A and basketball history in
Room B. Just when Magic was about to sell back his 5% ownership
in the team (as required by the league) for a reported $1
million profit and sign a half-season deal for whatever the
Lakers had left under the salary cap ($2.5 million), he put down
the pen and said, "Forget it. I'm not doing it."
There was a moment of sickening silence, and then that famous
smile broke out. "Just kidding," he said. And three cardiac
arrests in the conference room.
Here is what the Lakers got that day: a power forward who could
provide relief at point guard, sometimes play small forward and
even move into the pivot; a winner of five championship rings,
three NBA Finals MVP awards and three regular-season MVP
awards; a living basketball god; a coach on the court; and a
damn-sure-hotter Lakers ticket. For that, they gave up nobody.
This Jerry West is good.
The league-leading Bulls, of course, would have been a more
suitable opponent for a Hollywood premiere, but you always want
an advance screening in Dubuque, and that is how on Jan. 30
innocent bystander Golden State came to be squashed by a
hit-and-run parade. For the hero's part, Johnson was a wreck. "I
was just so nervous," Magic said two days later. "That whole
night before, I couldn't sleep. I think I got maybe two hours.
You know, when you look at the clock and you think you've been
sleeping for hours, and you've only been asleep for 10 minutes?"
That Tuesday night game at the Forum would have had to come down
three notches to be classified as pandemonium. When the starting
lineups were announced, there was no mention of Johnson, but
still your throat got dry and your ears ached and your arm hair
stood at attention. Magic took the first seat on the bench,
waiting for a chance to get in. Magic Johnson, scrub.
It might have been a setup, but starting power forward Elden
Campbell picked up two fouls in 2:21. Magic may build movie
houses, but Elden knows good theater. Harris walked halfway up
and down the bench, and then said to the world's most famous
sixth man, "Let's go." As Magic ripped off his warmups, the
quorum at the Forum lost all decorum. Not since Gypsy Rose Lee
has there been that kind of yelling for the stripping of
Johnson's first shot, a righthanded hook, was woefully off, and
if 17,005 people can cringe in unison, they did. Oh, god. Not
Bob Cousy coming out of retirement and averaging 0.7 points for
the Cincinnati Royals. Not Willie Mays falling down in
centerfield. But six minutes later Johnson made the play that
woke up a city, made the last four years of numbing L.A. pro
sports mediocrity and revolving-door football teams go poof!
into an electric evening. What happened was, center Vlade Divac
passed to Johnson, who was cutting down the lane. Magic made a
beautiful fake to what Warriors' guard Latrell Sprewell was sure
was a Laker knifing in behind him. But when Sprewell's neck
twisted around like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist, he found no
cutter and no ball. Magic had kept it and laid it in, simply and
quietly--no power slam, no chin on the rim, no ESPN flush. The
shriek in that arena was one-third shock, one-third delight and
one-third relief. For Sprewell, it was an honor, like being shot by Jesse James. "He got me," he said later, grinning. "That was a sweet move." In Miami, Heat coach and executive president Pat Riley, who coached Magic back in the Showtime era and talks regularly to his old friend, was so moved that he cried.
Turned out the only thing contagious about Magic was his unquenchable selflessness. Campbell, who used to think an assist
was something that ought to be left to the auto club, had a career-high eight. A team that used to run the F-14 offense
(make one pass and fire) was now making four passes on a single fast break—L.A.'s 44 assists against the Warriors was the season
high in the NBA through Sunday. The Lakers won 128-118, and on the way out, one fan was heard to say: "God, what if they're right? What if he's not the player he used to be? What if he's better?"
Luckily, the Bulls were next in town and quite happy to drop a dump truck full of perspective on Los Angeles.
Chicago and its Scorched-Floor Tour arrived last Friday, following a somewhat overlooked 105-85 win over the Kings in Sacramento that gave them a 40-3 record—the greatest three-loss start in NBA history, eclipsing the mark set by the '71-72 Lakers. This feat didn't make so much as a ripple in the tide of Magic comeback stories. "The only ripple we're going to make," grumbled Chicago guard Steve Kerr, "is when we lose."
The Bulls were determined not to make that ripple in L.A. They
let the Lakers have a little fun and a 17-9 lead, but then Chicago's wildly unsentimental power forward, Dennis Rodman, started pounding on Magic inside in the manner of a man tenderizing beef. "Who cares if he's got HIV, measles, cancer, whatever," said Rodman, after grabbing 23 rebounds in the 99-84 victory, including 15 in the first half (three more than the entire Lakers team). "I'm going to slam him anyway, and anybody who's got any balls will do the same thing."
And for that, Johnson was ... grateful?
"I think Dennis was trying to give this country a message," Johnson said, referring to the fears of some NBA players that
they could contract HIV in combat. "He hugged me, slammed me, beat on me, and nothing happened to him. So we don't need to
worry about anybody else having anything happen to them."
When Rodman wasn't stealing scenes from Magic and Michael, Bulls forward Scottie Pippen was taking over the show. Pippen laid an instructional miniseries on Los Angeles, getting 30 points in three quarters, by which time Magic looked three-quarters drained. Overall, in 32 minutes Johnson had 15 points but a mere three assists plus one layup air ball and three turnovers.
After the game Magic waited for Michael in the weight room between the two locker rooms. Jordan joined him, hugged his longtime friend and said, plainly, "You gotta get your ass in shape."
From there they went to meet the media, and this one has to make the list of Press Conferences You Never Thought You'd See: Two players on anybody's Alltime, All-Planet Fab Five, sitting next to each other when only 11 months ago neither one of them was in the league.
Jordan tried to be soothing. "I told him, 'You may have that killer look in your eyes, but I'm not sure all your teammates do yet,'" he said.
But Magic was only nostalgic. "I love to watch beautiful basketball, and that was beautiful basketball the Bulls played tonight," he said. "That's the way we used to play it. We'll take our whuppin' and learn from it. We will." The lessons seemed fully absorbed on Sunday, when the Lakers beat the Jazz 110-103. In 31 minutes Magic scored a team-high 21 points, hit 15 of 18 free throws, grabbed seven boards and dished out six assists. More significant, perhaps, was the sight of Johnson in close contact with Utah power forward Karl (the Mailman) Malone, whose publicly stated fear of contracting AIDS on the court helped quash Magic's comeback in '92 but who now proclaimed that the return was fine by him. "What he said [in '92] probably helped myself and the league to get people educated," Johnson declared after the game. "He said something that maybe everybody else wanted to say, so give him credit for being a man. It's time to move on."
Of course, this comeback is not really about beating the Bulls or the Jazz, or any other opponent. This is not about winning the NBA championship or winning the Western Conference or changing the playoff picture.
This is about a man and a nation finally understanding that HIV is not going to rub off on you under the boards and that your chances of getting the AIDS virus from a scratch inflicted by Johnson are far less than having the giant Forum scoreboard drop on your head.
The day before the Chicago game, Johnson sat quietly in a spare room at the Forum and got his hair cut by his hairstylist of 14 years, Beverly Wynder. News was out that a combination of drugs—including the newly developed class of protease inhibitors—apparently slows the advance of HIV in some patients. Better yet, Johnson's own physician, David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, has pioneered AIDS research tests. "Elizabeth Glaser [the late AIDS activist] said I was going to be around forever," Magic said. "She believed I would beat this, and I think she's right."
"Amen," Beverly whispered.
"With God's blessing and these new drugs and my doctor taking care of me," he said, "I might be around a long, long time."
"Praise Jesus," Beverly cooed.
"I'm going to be around till I'm 150, me and Larry Bird, just out there, shootin' jump shots, gummin' it up!"
"Hallelujah!" yelped Beverly.
Magic was grinning from sideburn to sideburn, and Beverly looked at him just for a second and then she had to put the electric shears in the other hand so she could wipe the tears in her eyes.
Telling you, this was really some wonderful week.