Almanack: Under the spell of the old Magic

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The Independent Online
THERE are several definitions of superstardom: they involve bodyguards, hangers-on, jets, limos and cavalier treatment of the press corps. Magic Johnson's visit to London on Friday certainly lived up to expectation on all these counts, but he also fulfilled the most demanding definition of all: the ability to extract the breath from a stadium full of people.

Admittedly the stadium concerned was the London Arena, a bland barn in the weird empty wonderland of the Isle of Dogs, and the opposition, the UK League All-Stars, will be among the least impressive teams that Magic has faced in his 14-year career, but he still did his stuff, and made 5,000-odd people gasp, and cheer, and stamp their feet.

The event was the London leg of the 7Up Magic All Stars Tour, venue number two of an 11-game whizz around Europe that includes exhibition games, basketball clinics and a good deal of HIV/Aids advice and fund-raising (it is unfortunate, but it is a fact that Magic is at least as famous in this country for being HIV positive as for being a great basketball player). On Thursday, Magic's bunch of NBA veterans (or 'has-beens', according to who you consulted) whipped Holland's finest. On Friday they belaboured Britain's best.

The pattern of the 'match' was this. The UK players surge up the court, exchange a pass or two and shoot from a reasonable distance. They miss. Magic Johnson, standing underneath his own basket, fires off a court-length pass that is picked up by one of his players and popped into the basket. The most frequent target of these guided missiles was Kurt Rambis, a 6ft 8in, bespectacled, grinning, moustachioed supergeek who was an instant hit with the crowd. Incidentally, we can't tell you how old Rambis is because the programme mysteriously failed to include the ages of the American players.

Never mind. Magic Johnson is the world's most magnetic has- been. Look at the way he shambles down the court, elbows and feet everywhere as he jogs; then the transformation, every muscle focused as he moves forward with speed and power and conviction, the ball seemingly on elastic. He'd lay off a pass, or feint and move inside, or - once, and it brought the stadium to its feet - swivel and run away from the basket, looping the ball over his head and in. He scored from long range ('downtown' in basketball- speak), he scored from close range; he scored, like the rest of his team, pretty much at will. The final tally was 133-78, and one felt that Magic's bunch had not over- exerted themselves.

The Brits were not bitter - quite the opposite. 'That was a dream come true,' said Trevor Gordon, the UK's 6ft 9in centre. 'Magic was my hero in college, and to play against him was wonderful. Except when he was scoring against me.' But he couldn't wipe the smile off his face.

Magic took the microphone for a suitable superstar's farewell. 'Young people,' he boomed, 'keep dreaming, and one day you can be in the NBA, one day your dream might come true.' But of course there is another message that Magic Johnson tries to get across these days. 'And keep fighting against HIV and Aids. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. See you next year.' We hope so.

(Photograph omitted)