Magic Johnson to play in Sweden

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The Independent Online

Earvin "Magic" Johnson arrives in Sweden on Monday for his first competitive game since retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson arrives in Sweden on Monday for his first competitive game since retiring from the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996.

Making another comeback at the age of 40, albeit only for one game, Johnson will play on Tuesday night for a team that bears his nickname, Magic M7, against a team from Uppsala.

Interest in Johnson's comeback is so big that the game will be broadcast live on one of Sweden's biggest television networks. Basketball is popular in Sweden, but ranks far behind soccer and ice hockey, and league games are almost never broadcast on television.

Johnson's team is based in Boras, a city of 110,000 inhabitants in western Sweden. The arena, which only seats some 3,800, sold out quickly for Johnson's game.

Johnson, who led the Lakers to five NBA titles in the 1980s, works out daily and played 12 minutes in his annual all-star game in Los Angeles in early August.

So how many minutes can Johnson play in a league that is certainly not among the best in Europe.

"It's hard for me to say how many minutes Earvin can play," said Charles Barton, coach of Magic M7 and a former Swedish national team coach. "I expect him to play a lot. He wouldn't come and not be prepared."

Last season, Magic M7, finished fifth in the Swedish League and missed the playoffs. This season, the team is off to a 6-0 start and hardly needs Johnson. But who could ever turn down one of the greatest basketball players ever?

"I told the players tonight after practice that they have to play with Earvin, not watch him," Barton said Sunday night.

Barton, whose parents flew over from Columbus, Ohio, to see their son coach what will be the most memorable game of his career, always thought Johnson was the ultimate player.

"I watched him a lot. He could play point guard and center in the same game," Barton said.

So which position will Johnson play Tuesday.

"Probably point guard, but I have to see him in practice," Barton said. "The practice tomorrow will be more fun than the game, to tell one of the greatest player ever that 'we want you to move here ...' It's a tremendous challenge and honor at the same time."

Steve Haney, Magic M7's manager, said Johnson picked Sweden partly because of the impression the country made on him during a 1996 tour with his all-star team made up of former NBA players.

"We have a licensing agreement and he's an advisor and consultant to the team," Haney said.

Johnson, who led Michigan State to a national collegiate title in 1979, learned he had tested positive for the HIV virus that can cause AIDS in 1991, and retired for the first time just before the start of the 1991-92 season.

After returning to play on the US Dream Team that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics, he made a brief comeback before the 1992-93 season, but quit again after several players expressed concerns about playing with him for health reasons.

In January 1996, he returned to the Lakers and played the remaining half of the season, retiring again, at age 37, after the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs.