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Lakers Ready for Return of Magic Johnson, Sources Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Magic Johnson and the Lakers have reached an agreement in principle on a new contract that would return the popular basketball superstar to the court more than four years after he first retired, sources said Friday, leaving it to Johnson to decide whether he will play again.

“Let’s just say I haven’t decided,” Johnson told Associated Press from Phoenix, where he played in a charity basketball game featuring pro football and major league baseball players.

Johnson, a three-time most valuable player who led the Lakers to five National Basketball Assn. championships in the 1980s, originally quit Nov. 7, 1991, after learning that he had tested HIV-positive. He announced a comeback the next fall, went to training camp in Honolulu with the team and played in exhibition games before retiring again because of criticism by some opponents and because of the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded his return with the condition.

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However, he starred for the U.S. team in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, has played with his own touring team and has toyed with the idea of a comeback. He has practiced with the team several times in the last few weeks.

He also coached the Lakers for the final 16 games of the season in 1994.

The Times has learned that the Lakers and Johnson have a plan for him to divest himself of his 5% ownership in the club, as called for by NBA policy, and sign a contract to play for the second half of the season and the playoffs for $2.5 million, the maximum allowed under the league’s complicated salary cap rules.

“It’s done,” one source close to the situation said.

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Whether it will happen, however, remains uncertain. Johnson has often said that he loves his life as a businessman--he has a movie theater complex in the Crenshaw district--and Lakers vice president. At the same time, he clearly has an interest in playing again at 36, much of that apparently based on a desire for his 3-year-old son, Earvin III, to see him play.

Johnson’s agent, Lon Rosen, was noncommittal.

“We spoke with the NBA to see what it would take for him to come back,” Rosen told Associated Press. “He’s been practicing quite a bit with the Lakers and the intensity has gone up the past few weeks. He’s going to make a decision very soon.”

As the Lakers prepared to play the 76ers Friday night in Philadelphia, however, assistant coach Larry Drew, a close friend, said all indications are that Johnson will return.

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“Not based on anything he’s told me,” Drew said. “Just based on what it looks like to me. He’s out there making sure he knows the [offensive] sets. I’m seeing the way the guys are reacting, and everybody is real upbeat. He gets out there [for practice] and the level of play goes up three notches.

“I’ve been around him enough to know what certain things mean. That’s Earvin. He doesn’t necessarily want to come out and say, ‘I’ll do this, do that and do this,’ but being around him, I know when something has caught his attention.

“I’ve gotten everything but the word.”

The Lakers, well aware that Johnson has previously come close to coming back only to change his mind, are proceeding with caution. Equally cognizant that some might see this as a publicity ploy to sell tickets--they are 25th among 29 teams in average home attendance--management, stung by similar hopes during his short-lived 1992 comeback, is being careful not to give the impression that his return is inevitable.

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Typical of the roller-coaster story that has been almost nonstop since the first retirement, this is the second time the charismatic future Hall of Famer has considered a comeback in just this month. The first consideration ended when he watched the Lakers squander a 19-point lead and lose to the lowly 76ers at the Forum and he soured on what he perceived to be a poor attitude among the players.

“I can’t [play] like this,” Johnson said Jan. 8. “I don’t know how to come back with a team like this. I’d be fighting with somebody out there.”

Five days later, he practiced for the first time. He has done it twice more since, most recently Monday at Loyola Marymount, just before the Lakers left on an eastern trip.

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“You could see the guys are really playing and have really pulled together,” he said Jan. 16 of his change of heart.

“I decided not to [join the team in practice] because when you lose a couple games like we did, to Philadelphia and [Denver], I could see we were down. I would have been a distraction, and that’s why I didn’t do it then. But now it’s a better situation. We got two big victories, everybody’s feeling good about themselves, so now it was easier for me to come in and practice.”

Asked if he was preparing to take it to the next level--a return--Johnson said, “Right now I’m just practicing and having fun. I’m not trying to come back or anything. If that happens, then I’m sure you all will know, but right now I’m just trying to help the team. I’m just here to work out. It’s good to do it. I’m glad Coach [Del] Harris let me do it and I’m glad the guys have allowed me practice as well with them.

“No, I’m not coming back. I’m just here practicing.”

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So, he was asked, you’re not ever coming back?

“I wouldn’t say never,” Johnson said, laughing.

Jerry West, the Lakers’ executive vice president, recently talked with Johnson about whether a comeback should happen now or not at all because of Johnson’s advanced basketball age.

Johnson, who starred at point guard during his 12 seasons as a Laker, is likely to become a versatile forward-guard if he plays again.

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“If he’s going to make up his mind, I think it’s going to be soon,” West said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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The prevalent rumor is that Johnson, if he returns, will do so Friday, when the Lakers play the Chicago Bulls and NBA superstar Michael Jordan at the Forum. Jordan is experienced at such comebacks, having made one himself in March. He quit basketball at the height of his fame to try baseball, spending a frustrating season with minor league teams, then decided his athletic future lay in basketball after all.

“If he’s like me, he realizes what basketball meant to him, appreciates it more after being gone from it,” Jordan said of Johnson. “If he wants to come back, he should.”

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Times staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this story.


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