- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

It was sheer Magic.
And appropriately, it took place not far from Disney World's Magic Kingdom.
Three months earlier, Earvin "Magic" Johnson certainly the most captivating athlete of his time had announced his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers after learning he was HIV positive. But here he was, on Feb.9, 1992, playing for the Western Conference team in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Fla. And not only playing but starring.
Despite his stunning revelation the previous November that apparently ended a 12-year career in which he led the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships, Johnson's name remained on the All-Star ballot. Fans voted him onto the West team by a wide margin, some doing so out of sympathy and some out of respect.
There was a question whether the NBA would allow Johnson to compete, considering he hadn't played in a regular-season game. But not doing so would have been a disastrous PR move, and commissioner David Stern was no dummy. He remembered full well how the arrival of Johnson with the Lakers and Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics for the 1979-80 season revived interest in the league when it was lagging badly.
Yet concerns remained. How would Johnson's eight-month layoff from competition and the disease affect him? At 32, how could he possibly be in shape? Most important of all, how would the other players react to his breathing, sweating and maybe even bleeding alongside them? At the time, much less was known about the HIV virus and AIDS. Was it advisable for others even to be in the same building with a man who was HIV positive?
Leading up to the game, Johnson answered most questions with his trademark smile. He wasn't worried, he said, and nobody else should be either.
During player introductions, the crowd erupted at the sound of Johnson's name. He stood there in a maelstrom of sound, smiling that irresistible smile. Suddenly, Isiah Thomas of the East team came over and hugged Johnson. Michael Jordan followed, then all the players from both teams as the fans continued to roar.
"Words mean a lot," Johnson said after the game, "but it's feelings that count most. Ours is a game of compassion. I'll never forget those hugs and high-fives."
Then the game started, and by the time it ended Johnson's performance had many of the spectators in tears. Unbelievably, he scored 25 points and had nine assists in the West's 153-113 victory and was named the game's MVP. That stood for Most Valuable Player, of course, but a lot of people thought it should mean Most Valiant Player as well.
With his inherent sense of drama, point guard Johnson saved the best for the last 90 seconds. First, he threw a perfect bounce pass to Dan Majerle for a layup. Then, with the clock running down, he forced Thomas and Jordan into missed jumpers on the East's next two possessions. Finally, he launched a 3-point shot of his own in midair. Swish! Bedlam ensued.
"This was the perfect ending," Johnson said afterward. "I was trying to write this story in my mind all week, and it was like I sat down at my typewriter and said, 'Here's my ending.'"
As he stood at midcourt grinning his broadest grin, all the players joined in the moment. As Johnson put it, "This was the first game ever called on account of hugs."
Recalling the scene some years later in his book "My Life," Johnson said, "There are times in life when you want to take a feeling and put it in a bottle so you can take it with you forever. I had an entire season's worth of pleasure from that one game."
Later that year, Johnson again played and starred for the U.S. "Dream Team" as it won the gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He wanted to resume his NBA career that fall but abandoned that plan when rumors circulated that some players didn't like the idea of competing all season against someone who was HIV positive a strange development in light of the joyous All-Star Game scene.
By 1996, however, people were more familiar with the disease and its dangers. So at 36, one of the NBA's greatest point guards put on the Lakers' gold and purple uniform again and played the final 32 games as a bulked-up, 6-foot-9, 255-pound power forward. After Los Angeles lost in the playoffs, though, he retired for good as a player. Six years later, he was installed in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as the cheers rang out anew.
Over the 11-plus years following his HIV announcement, Johnson has become a poster boy for those who insist people infected with the virus can lead productive lives. At 43, he has been a short-term coach of the Lakers (a 5-11 record at the end of the 1993-94 season), a successful businessman and a pleasant presence on television. He takes the required medications and appears healthy. As always, his effervescent manner and that irresistible public smile remain unflagging.
A quarter-century after he first became nationally known while playing for Michigan State, Johnson's achievements are the stuff of legend. He won an NCAA title when the Spartans defeated Bird and Indiana State in 1979, then an NBA crown the following spring against Bird's Celtics. He was the NBA's regular-season MVP three times, made the All-NBA first team nine times, set a host of records and easily gained recognition as one of the 50 greatest players in the league's first 50 years.
But if you asked Magic Johnson to name his favorite basketball moment, it's a pretty good bet that the 1992 All-Star Game would be very high on the list.
After all, it was sheer Magic.

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