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Monday, February 17, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Time For Tears -- Lakers Retire Magic's Number

Washington Post

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For once in his life, Magic Johnson could not handle pressure. It came from all sides yesterday, from former colleagues, teammates and opponents, in an emotional ceremony at the Forum, where Johnson starred with the Los Angeles Lakers and helped resurrect the fortunes of the National Basketball Association for 12 years.

Johnson, 32, retired Nov. 7 after learning he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He became the fifth Laker to have his jersey retired, his No. 32 hung from the rafters along with Elgin Baylor's 22, Jerry West's 44, Wilt Chamberlain's 13 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 33.

All four of those Hall of Famers were present, along with Johnson-era ex-Lakers Norm Nixon, Kurt Rambis, Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper; his parents, Earvin Sr. and Christine Johnson; his sister Pearl, son Andre Mitchell, wife Cookie, and NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Also present was the man who shared the responsibility with Johnson for reviving the NBA. Larry Bird flew cross-country against the advice of the Boston Celtics' physicians to attend the ceremony, which took place during halftime of Sunday's Celtics-Lakers game. It was only the second time in 43 meetings between the teams since 1979 that neither was able to play.

The ceremony began with a 10-minute film chronicling Johnson's NBA career, from the opener in 1979 - when Abdul-Jabbar's hook beat the lowly Los Angeles Clippers at the buzzer and a deliriously happy Johnson had to be told to calm down, there were 81 games left - to the Lakers' final championship in 1988.

Johnson never stopped learning from the man a dozen years his senior. "Kareem was like my big brother, who taught me all about life," said Johnson, who wiped away tears earlier while Abdul-Jabbar spoke, "and who taught me how to be a professional basketball player. Not just a basketball player, a pro. . . .

"People ask me all the time, what do I miss the most about not playing? It's not the playing part I miss the most; it's just being one of the boys. You'll never know how great it is to be one of 12 guys. You come out and you work hard for eight months and you unite for a common goal, and that's to be a champion."

The ceremony lasted better than 50 minutes, more than twice the scheduled time. (The Lakers could not, in storybook fashion, overcome an 18-point halftime deficit - though they did come within a point late in the game - and lost 114-107.)

Johnson did not discuss where he was in his decision-making process of whether he will return to play. He said Friday that he probably would have some sort of idea in a week or so, and would meet with a team of physicians, including Lakers doctor Michael Mellman, in the near future.

Yesterday's ceremony was not about the future but Johnson's glorious past, which included five NBA titles and four other championship series appearances, three season and three Finals MVP awards and the NBA's all-time assist mark.

Still, Johnson's illness came up, cryptically if not directly.

National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Charles Grantham quoted Martin Luther King: "The true measure of a man is not how he behaves at moments of comfort and convenience, but how he stands in times of controversy and challenge."

Bird gave Johnson a piece of Boston Garden's parquet floor, saying, "You never wore green and white, but you'll always be a member of our family.

"He's not done yet," Bird added. "We're going to Barcelona (the Summer Olympics, where NBA players will compete for the first time) and bring back the gold for everyone."

From past and current teammates, Johnson received a sculpted bust by artist Artis Lane. Lane has been commissioned to do a life-size statue of Johnson to stand at the Forum. Lakers coaches gave him a gold Tiffany watch.

The NBA's teams and players will make a $600,000 contribution to the Magic Johnson Foundation, set up to increase public awareness and education about AIDS. The Lakers Wives organization donated an additional $100,000.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss will endow a full-tuition scholarship at Johnson's alma mater, Michigan State University.

Videotaped messages of support were shown from NBA stars Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas, and from former Lakers coach Pat Riley. Said Thomas: "Please understand that that warm feeling that you're feeling from people now, that feeling goes outside the arena. And that warm feeling surrounds you wherever you go."

But, given an opportunity to make his NBA retirement official and everlasting, Johnson balked. His last words to the crowd were, "I hope, if I do decide to come back, you won't be upset if we do this all over again."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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