As Johnson strode on to the Forum court on Tuesday night, deafening cheers lasted nearly a minute. They groaned when he missed his first attempt, groaned again as a long shot clanked off the rim, but then Johnson came driving down to the right and flipped in his first basket.
"You wait for this day for a long time and it's finally here and you go out there and... oh, man," Earvin "Magic" Johnson said later of his return to professional basketball after 1,540 days. "It was great," he said. "It was so much fun. Man!"
Johnson had aged four years and put on 36lbs since he retired from the Lakers on 12 June 1991 as one of the greatest names in basketball, after announcing he carried the HIV virus. He was noticeably slower and heavier. But he scored 19 points in 27 minutes, making 10 assists and eight rebounds, helping the Lakers to a 10-point victory.
They were remarkable statistics for a player who has been out for four years. In the stands and in the press box, the verdicts were unanimous. No one expected perfect form in the first game but, as comebacks went, this was formidable. "Simply Magical," the Los Angeles Times announced in two-inch type. Watching from the second row was Leigh Adams, a TV salesman who stopped watching basketball when Johnson retired. He had brought his eight-year-old son to watch sporting history and was not disappointed. "He never lets you down," he said. "It's just a ton of excitement. His magnetism is just contagious."
At half-time the overhead screen played clips of Johnson in his glory days. At the back of the stands, filled with 7,500 people and more than 200 journalists, Johnson's No 32 was still posted with other retired numbers from the Lakers' great players. Johnson said he came out scared and nervous. "What I've learned is that I've got work to do. Sometimes I was somewhere I shouldn't have been with it," he said. "I've got to feel the game better. It's not just my condition, it's banging and hitting, and all of that has to come back."
At times both teams seemed to play around Johnson rather than against him, overawed by the legend in their midst. The Lakers' Cedric Ceballos, one of the players who had telephoned Johnson to urge him to return, said he looked along the bench and thought: "Where is my rewind button?" Johnson had introduced the Lakers' Vlade Divac, a Yugoslav with only a smattering of English, to American basketball. He was the high school inspiration for Joe Smith, the Warriors' star who played opposite him at No 32.
Johnson's doctor put him on the anti-Aids drug, AZT, four years ago, but since then he has rebuffed questions on his medication and health. Protests from players fearful of infection blocked an earlier return. But his team-mates now joke they are playing basketball, not having unprotected sex. "We are all educated now," Johnson said. "It is just full steam ahead."
The hype was already building yesterday for tomorrow's game, when the Lakers face the Chicago Bulls, who are on a winning streak led by Michael Jordan, another great who himself retired for 18 months. Commentators hope it will relight the flagging basketball scene. There won't be room for any charity. The Bulls have won 39 of their 42 games this season, and are aiming to win more games than any team in NBA history. "It's going to be wild, wild, Michael and the Bulls," Johnson said.
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