Magic Johnson honored at teary Forum ceromony

LOS ANGELES -- Magic Johnson, fighting tears, said goodbye to Los Angeles Lakers fans Sunday when the club retired his jersey, but left open the possibility he may yet return to professional basketball despite having contracted the AIDS virus.

The Lakers retired Johnson's No. 32 jersey during a ceremony at halftime of a game against the Boston Celtics. A sellout crowd of 17,505 showed up, as well as former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lakers Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, longtime rival Larry Bird and NBA commissioner David Stern.


Johnson's jersey will hang on the Forum wall next to those of Abdul- Jabbar, Chamberlain, Baylor and West, who is now the Lakers' general manager.

Johnson's family was also introduced at midcourt.

Tears streamed down Johnson's cheeks as he addressed the crowd. He retired last Nov. 7 after testing positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.


'It's been a great, wonderful 12 years with you and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I have,' said Johnson, wearing a brown suit and his broad signature smile.

Johnson spoke of the ceremony: 'My heart just starting crying. You walk that way so many times. Now you're walking out to say goodbye.

'It's difficult. You never know how to really say goodbye. It's hard because I'm a person who loves friends and likes to give and hopefully receive. I've received a lot of love and I hope I've given a lot.

'First of all I would like to thank all the former players that are here. I've had special memories with everyone of you. Kareem, he was my big brother and taught me about life and about being a pro basketball player ... not just about playing basketball.'

Johnson, 32, who led the Lakers to five NBA titles and nine Western Conference championships, said he will miss the game and nearly everything that accompanies it.

'Just being one of the boys, you never know how great it is to be one of 12 guys, work hard for eight months and try to be champions,' he said. 'I like to say to three of them, I love you AC (Green), James (Worthy) and Byron (Scott), we shared all those times together.


'I'm looking forward to playing in the Olympics. But I hope if do decide to come back you won't be upset if we do this all over again.'

Johnson said he plans to play in the Olympic Games this summer in Barcelona, and left the door open for a return to the NBA, although that would be a surprise.

'We look at it as if he's retired,' said John Black, head of the Lakers public relations staff.

The ceremony was one week after Johnson played in the NBA All-Star Game, earning MVP honors for lifting the West Conference to a 40-point victory.

'I will continue to work in case I want to come back or just get ready for the Olympics,' Johnsons said. 'I'm not making any hasty decisions just because I played well (in the All-Star Game). What I have to do now is lay out all the factors and make a decision.'

'He's honored, his jersey is retired,' said Lon Rosen, Johnson's longtime friend and agent. 'It's obviously exciting but it's not something he wanted to happen right now. It's a very special day and he's honored to be one of those guys. To have Larry come in is real special to him -- it's bittersweet.'


Bird made the trip with the Celtics although he is sidelined by a back injury and his doctor advised him against taking the long airpline trip.

Bird received a standing ovation when introduced and said, 'I'm not the one retiring here ... maybe next year?

'Magic, you never wore the green and white but you'll always be a part of our family,' added Bird, as he presented Johnson with a piece of the famed parquet floor of Boston Garden.

'But,' he told the fans, 'he's not done yet. We're going to Barcelona and bring back the gold.'

Johnson said he appreciated Bird's trip west.

'I want to thank Larry Bird for making a special trip,' Johnson said. 'Too bad we couldn't go on forever. I enjoyed so many of these battles. You got to play at the highest level when you played against Larry Bird. Thank you, Larry, for bringing the best out of Magic Johnson.

'I tried to talk to Larry and say, 'Let's suit up and run out and play the last five minutes.''

Johnson and Bird entered the NBA together in 1979, and their rivalry is considered a major reason for the league's boom in popularity in the 1980s.


The tribute to Johnson came on the same day the San Diego Union Tribune reported Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said Johnson would be threatening his life if he decides to play again. Vitti said Johnson would be leaving himself open to a 'double indemnity' -- facing the rigors of basketball while exposing himself to players who may be ill.

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