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Fantasy to Reality: Magic’s Trip Back

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was in Maui last summer, while running his fantasy camp, that Magic Johnson began to seriously consider making his own fantasy a reality.

More and more, he spoke about ending his four-year retirement from the game.

Johnson talked with Steve Chase, a Forum marketing executive, about which uniform he would wear. At first, Johnson didn’t want to touch his retired No. 32, which hangs on the Forum’s northern wall. He thought about putting on No. 5, the total of numbers two and three.

Johnson talked with broadcaster Chick Hearn on the flight home from Hawaii about the specifics of his return.

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“We came back on a Sunday,” Hearn said, “and I was convinced he would call on Tuesday to tell me he was doing it.”

The call never came. His return to the mainland had again left Johnson, who had briefly unretired in 1992 only to leave again without making it into a regular-season game, with new doubts.

As the Laker fortunes went up and down in the first half of this season, so did Johnson’s thoughts of a comeback.

Could he come back? Would he be a help or a hindrance? Would his new teammates accept him?

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Two weeks ago, Johnson decided the best place to get an answer was on the court. He began practicing with the players, but stopped after two days, his doubts still lingering.

“I just don’t think I can do this,” Johnson said.

“At that point, I didn’t think he would do it,” said Lon Rosen, his agent.

But while Johnson may have had his doubts, Laker Coach Del Harris had none.

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“I don’t care if I have to sleep outside his house,” Harris said. “I want him.”

Instead of ringing Johnson’s doorbell, Harris rang his phone. So did players like Cedric Ceballos and Nick Van Exel. So did Executive Vice-President Jerry West and General Manager Mitch Kupchak.

The message was the same: We really want you back.

“I think he was worried that people were just telling him what he wanted to hear,” Kupchak said. “I told him I thought that this was the best time for him to come back. I didn’t think so two to three years ago when this team was still forging its identity.

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“I told him that while Michael Jordan was evaluated on his athletic ability, he [Johnson] was never evaluated that way. He would be evaluated on his ability to be a winner.”

Hey, Johnson thought, this might work after all. He spent the weekend talking to his wife, Cookie, and his parents.

By a week ago Monday, Johnson told Rosen, “Yeah, I think I’m going to go for it.”

Johnson instructed Rosen to start preparing the paperwork to move him from the front office to the front court.

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Last Wednesday, Johnson and two members of his international traveling team went to Phoenix, as previously planned, to attend the Super Bowl.

But when Johnson rented a gym, both Lester Conner, a former NBA player himself, and Marchell Henry noticed a change. Instead of running drills for exhibition games, Johnson was imploring the players to lean on him physically. He was working furiously on defense and practicing his hook shot.

“It was the kind of thing you work on in training camp,” Conner said.

When the trio went out to lunch, Johnson broke into a big smile.

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“I guess I don’t need to tell you guys anything,” he said.

Answered both friends in unison: “You’re coming back.”

Although he had 50-yard line seats at the Super Bowl, Johnson elected to come home and work out. He brought former teammate Kurt Rambis in Sunday to put a big body in his face and make him work for his shots.

On Monday, it became official. No more doubts. No more rumors. The fantasy was a fantasy no longer.

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