Orlando, S�, 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."