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Magic heading back to Lakers

By RON GRIFFIN

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Magic Johnson said Tuesday he will return to the Los Angeles Lakers this season, less than a year after he announced his retirement because he has the AIDS virus.

Johnson, one of the best and most beloved players in basketball history, made the announcement with his wife, Cookie, at his side at a news conference at the Great Western Forum.

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'Since my wife has decided to let me play, I'm coming back to the Lakers and I'm playing again,' he said with his trademark smile and a cheer. 'I've been working extremely hard to come back and I'm glad to be back.'

Johnson, a 12-time All-Star who led the Lakers to five championships, said he made the decision to return after discussions with his wife, his two doctors and his parents. He said he expects to play between 50 and 60 games.

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'I'll try to avoid back-to-back situations and see how I feel,' he said. 'But we're talking about 50 games and we'll take if from there.'

Johnson, 33, said he has not decided if he will play past the 1992- 1993 season.

'One year for now and then we'll go from there,' he said.

He said he has gained weight and has been working out with weights. He will return to the court wearing No. 32, the jersey that was retired last season.

'God put me here to play basketball,' he said. 'So I'm going to do my thing on the court.'

Johnson retired last Nov. 7 after testing positive for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. He returned last season to play in the NBA All-Star Game, where he was named Most Valuable Player. He played last summer on the gold-medal winning U.S. Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics.

'Since the day that Magic Johnson announced that he has tested HIV positive, our principal concern has been his personal well-being,' NBA Commissioner David Stern said. 'We have conferred with his doctors, who have advised that they are comfortable with Magic's decision to return to active competition. We are pleased that he feels well enough to return.'

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Dressed in a blue suit, Johnson spoke of his love for the game with the same buoyancy that he did more than 10 months ago in announcing his retirement. And he said he is clearly aware that he is taking a most serious step.

'I'm not going to say it's not a risk,' he said. 'But life's a risk.'

Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers' team physician, acknowledged Johnson was stepping into uncharted territory, since no one with the AIDS virus has attempted what he is planning. The doctor called him 'an experiment named Earvin Johnson.'

Mellman said the medical follow-up will be 'very aggressive' and Johnson will have periodic examinations throughout the season.

'He will be listening to his body,' he said. 'We must pay attention to all aspects of his condition.'

NBA consultant Dr. David Rogers, vice chairman of the National Commission on AIDS, called Johnson's decision 'splendid.' He added there is 'no evidence' other players would be in danger of contracting the virus as the result of physical contact during a game.

'For him to resume his career is a very encouraging statement to others that are HIV positive that they can lead normal lives.'

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Johnson quit the Lakers on the advice of doctors. They told him the travel and strain of the NBA could weaken his immune system and make him more vulnerable to life-threatening illnesses.

Rumors had been circulating, particularly since the Olympics, that Johnson was considering a limited return.

Since learning of his virus, Johnson has devoted much of his time to fighting AIDS through educational videos, public appearances and other efforts.

Early this year he accepted President Bush's appointment to the National Commission on AIDS. Last week he sent a scathing letter to Bush, resigning his post because the Bush administration had 'dropped the ball' in combating the deadly disease.

Johnson, a three-time MVP and one of the games's most charismatic players, joined the NBA in 1979 after leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship as a sophomore.

He entered the NBA with Larry Bird and the two galvanized a league close to collapse. During last summer, playing with Bird and other NBA stars in Barcelona, Johnson said he became convinced he had the stamina and skills to return.

'The test for me was playing against the guys on the Olympic team,' he said. 'Nobody backed off. Michael (Jordan) and Larry (Bird) hit me just as hard as ever. I talked to Larry and told him I was coming back. He told me to go for it and he had already told me in Barcelona that I'd be back.'

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The Lakers, uncertain of Johnson's plans in the weeks leading to the season, had actually put together two team brochures -- one featuring Johnson on the cover, the other a collage of players.

Now the Lakers have their 6-foot-9 guard running the floor again. The Lakers play on consecutive days 17 times during the season, likely spots for Johnson to be sidelined.

'Obviously, when you add a player of his ability it brings excitement to our team,' Lakers General Manager Jerry West said. 'But we were more concerned with Magic the person than Magic the player.'

Johnson said he plans to settle a new contract with club owner Jerry Buss in a few days. He said if he didn't return to the Lakers he was planning a world basketball tour.

'I was definitely going to play basketball,' he said. 'I'm glad it's here.'

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