There he stood, 24 feet from the basket, a ball in one hand, a sprinkle of magic dust in the other. As the game clock wound down, Magic Johnson wound up and let fly. "I figured the shot was in," said the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson, his Western Conference teammate. "He's been writing this script for years."
Of course it went in, a three-pointer no less. And thus ended, in impossibly emotional and dramatic fashion, Sunday's 42nd NBA All-Star Game, better known as The Earvin Johnson Consciousness-Raising Love-In. Bank on this: You'll never see anything like it again.
While Johnson's 25-point, nine-assist, five-rebound, two-steal MVP performance at Orlando Arena did nothing to clear up his future playing status, it did make one strong statement about the present: Number 32 is seriously missed. In 29 minutes of the West's 153-113 rout, Magic posted up and hit his junior skyhook, sluiced through traffic for layups, threw no-look passes in the open court and made all three of his three-point shots. It's difficult to assess the meaning of one nearly defenseless All-Star Game, but he looked sharp, "as if he hadn't missed a beat," according to Western teammate Tim Hardaway of the Golden State Warriors.
In the three months since he announced that he had tested HIV-positive, Johnson has kept in shape with a daily physical regimen that frequently includes full-court, contact basketball. But playing against doctors and lawyers and even a few former NBA players like Larry Drew at Sports Club LA. is not the real thing, and there was much pregame skepticism about his ability to show the old magic. "He's still Magic Johnson, and his instincts will make him potent," said Eastern Conference and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson before the game. "But with all this time away, I'd be surprised if he can sustain his former level for long stretches, say, eight minutes."
Well, Phil, surprise! If you glance out your window, you might catch yet another Magic-led Western Conference fast break passing by. More than anything, though, Johnson special-delivered his intended message—that a person afflicted with the AIDS virus can be exceedingly productive. This much is clear: No matter what you have read or heard to the contrary, Johnson does not yet display any physical signs of the virus that is believed to turn into full-blown AIDS in nearly 100% of the cases.
The issue of when, or if, Magic will return to the court is anything but clear, however. During the weekend, he continued to insist that he will be a member of the U.S. team at this summer's Barcelona Olympics, and he left the door open for a possible full-time return to the Los Angeles Lakers. As much as he was sending a message about HIV, he was also releasing a trial balloon.
The confusion over his future status in the game will continue this Sunday, when the Lakers are scheduled to retire Magic's number at the Great Western Forum in a halftime ceremony during a nationally televised game against the Boston Celtics. Much to the surprise of the Lakers, Magic-began talking about returning to the NBA after the ceremony had been planned.
The truth is that Magic isn't sure whether he will return on a full-time basis. Before the All-Star Game, he said his plan was to take one step at a time—the game in Orlando, then the Olympics, then an evaluation. That would seem to indicate he will not return to the Lakers this season. But don't rule it out.
A number of other matters did become clear, though, in an hour-long interview with SI last Friday afternoon.
?He was deeply stung by the comments of Laker teammates Byron Scott and A.C. Green that he should not be playing in the All-Star Game. Green felt that Magic was not deserving because the game was for active players, while Scott, Johnson's closest friend on the Lakers, thought that Magic should stay away to protect his health. Both comments sent the same message to Magic: I'm not wanted.