He looked like a beer truck rumbling down the floor at the Fabulous Forum, and by the fourth quarter he was out of gas. But Magic Johnson returned gloriously last week to the game that once cast him out, and the effects are bound to be wide-ranging. At least they should be.

For a start, those fair-weather Los Angeles fans are turning out again--and it's not just Jack Nicholson. For the past three years, Lakers attendance has been dropping faster than Pee-wee Herman's salary, until it finally hit bottom at fourth- or fifth-worst in the league. Even when the team was winning eight of nine games recently, Angelenos found something better to do--rotate the tires on the Rolls, try to fix Marcia Clark's hair, beat up Rodney King. But when No. 32 shocked the world by rejoining the club he once made great, the $16 nosebleed seats were suddenly being scalped for a couple of hundred bucks, and the old Showtime of the Eighties was back for a moment in full force. Final score: L.A. 128, Golden State 118. And Johnson? In 27 minutes of play, he had 19 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds--the great numbers of old.

For his part, the re-lit star acknowledged that he was as nervous before the horn last Tuesday as he'd been in his very first game as a Laker, in 1979. That night, old hands remembered, the former Michigan State star tangled up his feet getting out of his warm-up suit and went down in a pile. Little matter: Over the next dozen seasons, the big man who revolutionized point guard led his club to nine NBA finals and five world championships. Along with Boston's Larry Bird, Johnson helped revive a professional sport then in its death throes. But Magic was by far the more appealing personality--vibrant, willing, gracious. He may have been the most popular athlete in America.

After work, too...
When Johnson announced on November 7, 1991, that he'd contracted the HIV virus and was retiring, you could have knocked the pro sports world over with a whiff of French perfume. That's a gay thing, the macho men of sport protested. What the hell's going on here? The doctors' offices were quickly (and very quietly) stuffed with warriors of the NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL--sought-after celebrities whose nocturnal wanderings and casual couplings weren't much different from Magic's. Fact is, the only big exam some of these guys ever passed was an AIDS test, and paranoia suddenly ruled the locker rooms.

Worries were expressed in whispers: "Hey, remember that Olivia chick? And Carol? Hung around the team in '88?"

It was Magic who paid the real price. Still yearning for the game he loved--and for the limelight--he returned to score 25 points in the 1992 NBA All-Star game and was named MVP. Then he led America's Dream Team to the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona. But the backlash had already begun: An Australian Olympian led a team-wide threat not to play against Johnson for fear of infection; when Magic announced his return to the league on September 29, 1992, some of the biggest names in hoop treated the man who had saved their game like a pariah.

Karl Malone, Utah Jazz: "Look at this, scabs and cuts all over me. They can't tell you that you're not at risk, and you can't tell me there's one guy in the NBA who hasn't thought about it."

Mark Price, Cleveland Cavaliers: "If there is a million-to-one chance of catching the HIV virus, then that is too high."

Gerald Wilkins, Cleveland: "Some people are scared. This could be dangerous to us all, but you're dealing with Magic Johnson, so people are handling it with white gloves."

While the NBA players' union fell strangely silent on the Magic/HIV issue, even an owner got into the act: The Phoenix Suns' Jerry Colangelo voiced the same concerns as some of the players. But the unkindest cut may have come from one of Johnson's oldest friends. The word persisted that Detroit's Isiah Thomas was the source of rumors that Magic got HIV through gay sex, and when a national sports columnist insinuated the same thing, Johnson was livid. Thomas, however, may have had an ulterior motive: He was angry, some said, that Johnson had not wielded his influence to get Thomas on the 1992 Olympic team.

In any event, the pressure finally grew unbearable, and on November 2, 1992, Magic re-retired. Said his agent, Lon Rosen: "His feeling is, if it's going to affect the outcome of a ballgame and people were afraid of playing against him...he loves the game too much to let something like that happen."

So, what's the man doing back in uniform four years later?
Is this an unseemly expression of ego? A crude gate-builder? Or an act of uncommon bravery? When he retired in 1991 Johnson cited the advice of doctors who said the intensity of pro basketball could injure his immune system and his ability to fight off the disease. Last week doctors at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta were typically noncommittal on that issue, saying it would be "inappropriate to comment" because it was a confidential matter between doctor and patient.

Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom says that the NBA--and all of sport--has wised up about AIDS through educational seminars and medical literature distributed to the players. That's why Utah's Malone, once one of the most vociferous critics, welcomed Johnson back last week: "I have no problem playing against him, absolutely not. We're more knowledgeable now." Chicago superstar Michael Jordan, whose red-hot club just surpassed a 24-year-old L.A. Lakers record, 39-3, to start a season, was gracious: "I don't have any fears. I'm happy for Magic. I want what's best for him."

How about what's best for the planet?
When Magic Johnson was hounded out of basketball by his peers in 1992, some AIDS activists embraced his cause and found opportunity in him, but others complained that his celebrity--and his heterosexuality--had given him a kind of favored-victim status that misrepresented the disease. Johnson's ties as an AIDS spokesman for the Bush and Clinton administrations clearly showed he was the world's best-known HIV sufferer and dramatized the social problems of the disease as no one else had.

"We're more knowledgeable now," Karl Malone said. What he probably meant is that NBA players now know that the risk of contracting AIDS on a basketball court is infinitesimal--especially since the league instituted standard infection-control procedures almost five years ago: If a player is bleeding, play is stopped, and he does not come back into the game until the wound is covered.

Let's hope we're also "more knowledgeable now" in the broader context. Magic Johnson's return could have huge implications for his team, to be sure: Even at age 36 and 250 pounds--27 pounds heavier than when he last played--he can still play all five positions on the court, remains a powerful post-up player and sinks free throws at an almost 90 percent clip. Now that he's a so-called point forward, he'll probably become the best passing forward in the history of the game, along with all the rest of his accolades, and his educational and emotional effects on the young Lakers (only two of whom were on the team in 1992) could be immeasurable.

"He will make us the best team in the West," Lakers guard Sedale Threatt says without hesitation.

But if Earvin Johnson II, with his limited expectations, never gets his club back to the finals, even if he never cans another hook shot, let's hope that his banishment and return serve to remind people of what HIV and AIDS have done to society. When No. 32 takes the court, we should think of the seasons he spent in exile--but we should pay more attention to the HIV-positive kids who find themselves all alone on school playgrounds. Whenever he steps to the foul line, we should be reminded of the fear, ignorance and prejudice that drove him away--but we'd do better to consider the AIDS-infected hospital patients who get poor care in those hospitals where nurses and doctors still choose to shun them.

We're more knowledgeable now. What we do with that knowledge has nothing to do with basketball or with what Lakers fans are now calling "The Late Show." It has everything to do with our hearts and souls.


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