The game is not out of his system. We can understand that. No athlete's love for his sport has ever been greater than Magic Johnson's affection for basketball, and a bond that strong cannot be broken simply by holding a retirement press conference or watching a number raised to the rafters. Magic cannot walk away that easily, nor should anyone expect him to.
But there comes a time when a clean break is necessary, when holding on becomes undignified, even a bit unseemly. It is getting to that point with Johnson (right), who, despite his success as a businessman and as vice-president and part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, cannot seem to give up his vision of himself as a player. He has been hinting for weeks that he wants to return to the court, and last week Laker executive vice president Jerry West finally took the hint, saying Los Angeles is interested in a Magic reappearing act. But as enticing as the mental image is of Johnson leading the fast break once again, he has been down the comeback trail before, and one more trip would be one too many. Love the game, Magic. Don't chase the game.
Johnson retired before the 1991-92 season, when he learned that he was HIV-positive. But after exhilarating performances in that season's All-Star Game and the Olympics in Barcelona, he attempted a return to the Lakers in the fall of 1992. He ended that comeback after only five preseason games, when he discovered how strong the fear was among his fellow players that he could infect them if he bled on-court. Then there was his return as coach of the Lakers for the last 16 regular-season games in 1993-94. He quit again at season's end, disgusted with the selfish attitudes of some of his players—many of whom, by the way, could be his future teammates.
Now he is knocking at the door again, and as happy as we are to see him, there is something sad as well. The repeated comebacks imply that Johnson hasn't found a way to replace basketball in his life. Where it once seemed that Johnson merely wanted to come back to the NBA, it now appears that he needs to. And that is a different thing entirely.
The irony is that Johnson always seemed to be one of those lucky athletes who would be able to put the ball down and move easily into the next stage of his life. As a player, he always talked of how he was laying the groundwork for life after basketball. But now it appears he has become the one thing he promised he never would be: an athlete unable to live without the game.
Johnson will face several obstacles if this comeback is to be more successful than his previous attempts. Age and rust will be his first opponents. When Michael Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls last March at age 32, he had a difficult time playing up to his old standards after 21 months away from the NBA. Johnson will be 36 on Aug. 14, and his layoff will have been almost three times as long as Jordan's. He has been playing exhibitions with his touring club against international teams, but going from that level to the NBA is like jumping from a friendly round of cribbage into a high-stakes poker game.
There is also the question of how Johnson's presence will affect the growth of a promising young Laker team, especially point guard Nick Van Exel, a budding star. The 6'9" Johnson, who is more muscular but perhaps a step slower than he was in his previous playing days, now sees himself more as a power forward than a point guard. But regardless of his position, in the final minutes of close games will the Lakers be Van Exel's team or Magic's?
Looming over all others is the issue of Johnson's health. He looks stronger than ever, and his apparent vitality is a daily reminder of how people can live active, productive lives for years after testing HIV-positive. But although Magic believes society is far better educated about the disease now than it was three years ago, no one is naive enough to believe Johnson won't face much of the same trepidation he saw then, particularly if he plays power forward. The area under the basket is a brutal, sometimes bloody place. Will players again object to trading elbows with a known HIV-positive opponent?
However, if Johnson is healthy enough and still skilled enough to play in the NBA, he has every right to do so. Magic has always played as if he was enjoying himself so much that he welcomed everyone to join him, and he deserves to be made just as welcome if he decides to come back. But perhaps the best anyone could wish for him now is not that he gets what he wants, but that he learns to want something else.