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Simply Magical : Johnson Makes Emotional --and Hugely Successful--Return in Laker Victory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Magic Johnson had the ball just across midcourt with 14 seconds left late Tuesday, then passed it to Eddie Jones to dribble the final moments off the scoreboard. Jones, knowing symbolism when he sees it, threw it back for the final eight ticks.

Because, even though Cedric Ceballos scored 33 points, this as Johnson’s night, his moment 55 months in the making. So, then, it would be his game to close out, this 128-118 Laker victory over the Golden State Warriors.

As if all eyes wouldn’t have been on him anyway. A capacity crowd filled the Forum, some 250 media members descended from around the country and a national television audience watched, and it was, well, magical.

Nineteen points, while making seven of 14 shots from the field and five of six from the line.

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Ten assists.

Eight rebounds.

Twenty-seven minutes at power forward, some as point power forward.

What do you mean he was ever gone?

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“It was great,” Johnson said. “It was so much fun. Man.”

That man thrilled and the crowd and sparked memories, all while helping the Lakers shoot 56.8%, a season high, and go for 44 assists, the most in the NBA during 1995-96. He may even have done the impossible. Exceed expectations.

“For years we’ve been asking him to come back,” Laker guard Anthony Peeler said. “We’ve been waiting for this.”

Said assistant coach Bill Bertka: “I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t expect him to be this effective this early. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen some of those moves on the floor.”

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Seems like old times? Not quite.

That was Nick Van Exel who led the Lakers on to the court to a huge ovation before the game, Johnson coming out eighth. And Magic did start a game on the bench for the first time since anyone can remember.

On the other hand . . .

The atmosphere was electric, downright Showtime-esque. They played “I Love L.A.” during the layup lines, when Johnson’s every make was cheered. Flashbulbs popped throughout the national anthem.

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To think that was all just a warmup. When Elden Campbell got his second foul 2:21 into the game, the real moment had arrived, albeit ahead of schedule.

The crowd, knowing foul trouble would mean an early entrance for Johnson, immediately began to cheer. Coach Del Harris stared down toward the call at the other end of the court for a couple of seconds, then did a 180 to his right and signaled to the bench.

Johnson stood up and walked to the scorer’s table. The crowd stood then, too, cheering for 50 seconds as the familiar bass voice of P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter introduced the familiar face that needed no introduction. Then Johnson went in, for the first time since June 12, 1991.

“It was time to go, I guess,” he said.

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How strange this must have been for Joe Smith, the Warrior rookie. He grew up in Norfolk, Va., idolizing Johnson and even wore uniform No. 32 in college and now the pros because of it. And then the first thing Magic did upon entering the game was take his spot on the right side of the lane for free throws--right next to Smith.

“It was great the first time,” Smith said. “Then I realized I had to stop this guy, and that’s when it became pretty hard.”

When Golden State’s Jerome Kersey made both attempts, the action went down to the other end, and Van Exel threw the ball right in to the new power forward on the low post. Johnson backed Smith into the lane, but his short hook hit the front of the rim. The crowd moaned in disappointment.

About two minutes later, Johnson got his first assist--No. 9,922 of his career, second on the all-time list to John Stockton--on a three-pointer by Anthony Peeler.

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“I knew that was going to be a big moment,” Peeler said. “When he throws the ball to you, you’ve got to make sure you knock it down. I really wanted to knock it down. I really did.”

Roughly two minutes after that came Johnson’s first basket, a short runner after driving down the right side. Soon after, a left-handed hook in the lane, followed the next possession by a head fake that sent the Warriors’ Latrell Sprewell about halfway up the loge level and cleared the way for Johnson to score inside.

That first stint lasted six minutes, before he was replaced by Derek Strong and sent to the bench with another loud ovation.

Johnson was back in the second quarter. Boy, was he.

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When he checked in, the Warriors, once down by 13 points, had closed to 35-32. By the time he left after nine minutes, 23 seconds, the Lakers had gone on a 30-16 run to build the lead all the way to 17, his contribution coming in the form of four assists and two baskets.

This was a 36-year-old man who had missed 4 1/2 seasons, save for some exhibition games in the fall of ’92, an NBA all-star game, an Olympics against opponents who asked for autographs and a bunch of games versus players around the world who couldn’t even beg an invitation to a one of summer pickup games Johnson and his friends play at UCLA?

This was a man who was nervous?

“Definitely nervous,” Johnson said. “Anybody would be. Probably more because it’s been a long time. Everything’s like brand new, in a sense. It’s almost like my first NBA game.”

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That night in the fall of 1979, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar beat the San Diego Clippers with a late hook, and Johnson, then 20, celebrated by jumping into his arms. Beyond a few fist pumps, there was none of that emotional frenzy Tuesday night.

This time, all Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. did was jump back in.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Magic by the Numbers

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The Magic Johnson of new compared favorably to the Magic Johnson of old on opening night. How his statistics compared to his career averages:

MINUTES

Tuesday: 27

Career: 36.9

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POINTS

Tuesday: 19

Career: 29.7

ASSISTS

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Tuesday: 10

Career: 11.4

REBOUNDS

Tuesday: 8

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Career: 7.3


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