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THE RETURN OF MAGIC JOHNSON : Happiness Is First, Then Questions

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beating Ross Perot by two days to a decision about the coming campaign, Magic Johnson announced his plans:

One more year.

Probably.

“I’m leaning that way, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” Johnson said Tuesday, at a lighthearted news conference that served as an emotional counterpoint to last November’s somber farewell, when he announced he was HIV-positive.

“My wife told me, ‘That’s it, one (season) and get out.’ Or she’ll leave me.

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“Cookie always told me I was coming back: ‘No way you’re working out three times a day and you’re not coming back, you can’t tell me. . . .’

“I said, ‘You haven’t given me your OK yet.’

“So I bribed her. I gave her a million dollars.”

Said Cookie Johnson: “It was a lot more than that.”

Thus did Magic and laughter return to the Lakers. Questions about health risks he was taking and the discontinuity inherent in the 20-30 games he will sit out could be posed, but only experience can provide answers. For the moment, the Lakers were certifiably deeper--"the deepest team I’ve played on,” Johnson said--and happier.

Johnson says he will play “somewhere between 50 and 60” of the 82 regular-season games.

He plans to avoid playing back-to-back games. The Lakers will have 17 sets of those.

Nothing else is known of his plans, despite rumors that he will play mostly at home.

How about Boston Garden, for example, on national TV on Super Bowl Sunday?

“Oh, definitely,” Johnson said, laughing. “And New York. I’m not going to miss the good ones.”

Randy Pfund, the rookie coach whose job had just been rendered easier and/or more complex, spent the summer designing a motion offense for a team that wouldn’t have Johnson.

Tuesday, all of Pfund’s plans went up in smoke.

Not that he minded.

“I’ve got 100 pages of motion offense and all kinds of other things that I’ll walk back in the office and put in the file,” Pfund said.

“I don’t look at this as a negative in any way. I don’t think there’s anything about this decision that won’t make the Lakers a better team, that won’t make this a better year for our fans and NBA fans. There are decisions to be made about playing time, but at this point, we’re in unchartered waters.

“Let me say this about the big picture. I think this is a great day for the Lakers and Laker fans. There are people with all kinds of disabilities and diseases. I think it should not be overlooked how hard Earvin has worked to bring himself back, and how he’s kept a positive attitude through this whole thing.

“The leadership Earvin provides, the confidence this team has playing behind him, I think makes the difference. The continuity, we’ll just have to wait and see. It could be difficult at times, but the difficulty will be overshadowed by the leadership Earvin gives us.”

In recent seasons, the Lakers faltered when Johnson left the floor for a rest. Last year, Sedale Threatt, the point guard who succeeded Johnson, did a commendable job, showing that he would be an ideal backup at both backcourt positions.

In the draft, the Lakers got talented guard Anthony Peeler, whom they can now bring along comfortably.

Using the injury exception they got for Johnson, they signed the Clippers’ James Edwards, giving them a backup for center Vlade Divac.

For his part, Johnson, convinced he was running no risk by returning, had only to decide what he wanted.

For his first four months out of the game, Johnson plainly ached for it. As soon as he realized his health wasn’t deteriorating, he began plotting comebacks--one before the All-Star game, one before the playoffs. His physicians urged caution, and he waited.

Late in the season, however, a change could be noted. Johnson was enjoying retirement, working weekends for NBC, lying around on Maui, working on buying a team. He didn’t come to the Forum as often, and no longer dropped hints about playing again.

“Ownership is my No. 1 priority,” he said for the first time.

The Olympics turned him around again. Johnson was thrilled by the experience, not the least of which was showing his fellow superstars in practice he was still their peer--or better.

“They tested me in practice,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I watched myself getting better and better, playing hard against them every day, all of us going at it like it was a regular game.”

Johnson told a confidante before leaving Barcelona that he would return to the Lakers.

He also said he would announce his decision in two weeks. Six weeks later, he was relaxing on Maui again, wondering if he should come back after the retirement of his Eastern Conference alter ego, Boston’s Larry Bird.

“He kind of threw a monkey wrench into the while thing,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Oh man, I don’t need this now.’ ”

Friends of Johnson who had been predicting a comeback started wondering again.

Said one: “You never know about that guy.”

However, by Johnson’s charity game at the Forum on Sept. 19, he was back on track. He said he loved walking down the runway to the floor again, and hinted once more at a return.

“You know, you’ve got it in your body and your bones,” he said that night. “This is what I do, and this is what I love to do. I’ll leave it at that.”

When Tuesday’s news conference started 15 minutes late, reporters joked that Johnson still hadn’t decided and was flipping a coin in the Laker offices.

But no player ever had to make a decision like this before, and no team’s prospects were ever quite like this. That much and no more is certain.

MEDICAL: Experts say if Magic Johnson feels all right to play basketball, he should play. C4

REACTION: NBA people say they aren’t surprised Johnson will return to the Lakers. C5

The Magic Schedule

Magic Johnson, acknowledging that he would be facing a risk by returning to active play, says he will avoid back-to-back games. Here is the team’s 1992-93 schedule with back-to-back games highlighted with an asterisk *. Nov. 6 at LA Clippers Nov. 8 Sacramento Nov. 10 at Golden State Nov. 12 at Seattle* Nov. 13 LA Clippers* Nov. 15 Golden State Nov. 20 Chicago Nov. 22 Denver Nov. 25 New Jersey Nov. 27 at Portland Nov. 29 Dallas Dec. 1 at Sacramento Dec. 3 at Houston* Dec. 4 at Phoenix* Dec. 6 Minnesota Dec. 9 Portland Dec. 11 Washington Dec. 13 Milwaukee Dec. 15 at San Antonio* Dec. 16 at Dallas* Dec. 18 Phoenix* Dec. 19 at Denver* Dec. 23 Seattle Dec. 26 San Antonio Dec. 28 at Miami Dec. 30 at Orlando Jan. 2 at Cleveland* Jan. 3 at Milwaukee* Jan. 5 at Chicago* Jan. 6 at Minnesota* Jan. 8 Sacramento Jan. 10 Miami Jan. 14 at LA Clippers* Jan. 15 Portland* Jan. 18 Houston Jan. 20 Seattle Jan. 22 at Utah Jan. 24 at Washington Jan. 26 at New Jersey Jan. 28 at Indiana* Jan. 29 at Charlotte* Jan. 31 at Boston Feb. 2 Orlando Feb. 4 Utah* Feb. 5 at Phoenix* Feb. 8 Dallas Feb. 10 Denver Feb. 14 Atlanta Feb. 18 at Portland Feb. 24 at Sacramento Feb. 26 Cleveland Feb. 28 LA Clippers March 2 at Denver* March 3 at Golden State* March 5 Philadelphia March 7 Charlotte March 9 at Detroit* March 10 at New York* March 12 at Philadelphia March 14 at Atlanta* March 15 at San Antonio* March 17 San Antonio March 19 Boston March 21 Detroit March 24 Phoenix March 26 New York March 28 Indiana March 30 at LA Clippers* March 31 Minnesota* April 4 Utah April 6 at Phoenix April 8 at Golden State* April 9 Portland* April 11 Seattle April 13 at Houston* April 14 at Dallas* April 16 Houston April 18 Golden State April 20 at Minnesota* April 21 at Utah* April 23 at Seattle* April 24 Sacramento*


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