LOS ANGELES — Go ahead. Break my heart. Tell me Magic Johnson is serious when he says, “I’m thinking about retiring. I’ll go home after this season and see if I want to come back.” There comes a time in every athlete’s life when words like that escape his lips. And with some guys, you are only too happy to hear it. But with others. . . .

Magic Johnson leaving basketball? That’s like Wilbur and Orville walking away from the airplane. Or the Kennedys walking away from politics. Or Johnny Carson walking away from “The Tonight Show.” Come to think of it, that just happened, didn’t it? But they got Jay Leno to take Carson’s place. Replacing Magic will not be so easy.

He stood there Tuesday afternoon in his familiar purple and gold practice sweats, 31 years old, swallowed by yet another a crowd of reporters. His team was on the brink of being crushed in the NBA Finals by the upstart Chicago Bulls. Magic was being neutralized, his game taken away, his teammates suddenly not there. Maybe something hit him. Maybe he’d been thinking about this for a while. But this is what he said: “I may not be back. Maybe it’s time to do something else.”

And somewhere, the breath went out of basketball.

For here, arguably, is the man who saved the NBA. Don’t forget that in the late ’70s, before Magic and Larry Bird splashed into the league, pro basketball was not the ultra- slick money machine it is today. Heck, some folks watched the Pro Bowlers tour before they watched the NBA.

And then came Magic, like a happy colt just busted from the corral. He had unmatched skill, unmatched enthusiasm, he made it to the Finals in his rookie season, and in the last game, because of injuries to others, he played center
— center? — he scored 42 points, and the Lakers won it all. Magic danced off the court with that huge smile, and America danced right behind him. The new NBA was born. We were hooked. Magic still one of a kind in the NBA

There has been a lot of water under his bridge since then. Coaches have come and gone. Teammates have turned into retired jerseys. Magic, with all sorts of trophies and records, has been such a winner, he has never gone more than two seasons without a championship ring; but if the Lakers lose tonight, it will be three straight seasons with no gold, and there is talk of trades, and who knows if LA will even reach the rainbow next year? “If I thought we couldn’t be competitive, that we didn’t have a chance to win it . . . I’d be out,” Magic admitted.

And that would be a shame. For so long, Johnson has been a fixture in the league. And in American sports. No matter what happened in your work day, you could always come home, turn on ESPN, and get a shot of some ridiculous miracle Magic pulled off that night. You could always count on a Sports Illustrated cover story, or a new poster. You could count on that smiling face. Johnson has been a Laker since Jimmy Carter was president, and he has been great the whole time. He is the only player I can think of who is both feared and liked by his NBA colleagues. Bird cannot say that. Michael Jordan cannot say that. Isiah Thomas cannot say that. Magic stands alone.

And because of that, only he knows when to say good-bye. Could it be sooner than we figured.

“I’ve said at most I’d only play one or two years more. I don’t need the job — or the money. I know nothing will ever compare to the thrills I get in basketball. I’d miss the competition. I’d miss playing in different arenas. I’d even miss all these reporters around me.

“But when you say to yourself ‘I’m tired of traveling’ or ‘I’m tired of giving it up every night’ or ‘I’m tired of injuries,’ — well, you have to sit down and evaluate yourself. That’s what I’ll do this summer.”

He grinned. “I don’t know. I might just give it to Michael and let him run with it.”

No offense, Michael. But it won’t be the same. Who else can rival Michael?

And here is why I say that: Johnson has not only been a spectacular player, he has been an ambassador. While no one can match Jordan for sheer ability, he is pretty much a recluse, even in Chicago. During interviews, he answers questions politely, but with little flair. He is a hot endorsement commodity, but have you noticed most commercials use him as a prop, he says one or two words, and the rest of the time is a flying dunk machine?

Johnson was different because he gave the game personality. His personality. He was a spokesperson as well as a showpiece. And one other thing: He had a rival all those years; first Bird, then Thomas and the Pistons. “Michael will need a rival, too,” Magic said. “He needs somebody who, after his game is over, he can ask, ‘Hey, what did he do tonight?”

Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone out there.

All the more reason for Magic to stick around. And yet, on Tuesday, with the grim prospect of a 3-1 deficit and two injured teammates, he sounded as if this year was done, next year was already on his mind. “We’ll give it a good effort,” he sighed.

He may do something spectacular tonight. He may try to save his team all by himself. He may not succeed. But watch him carefully. Savor what you see.
“People should set their VCRs for this series,” Magic said before it started,
“because what they’re seeing in Michael Jordan, they will never see again.”

Good idea. Wrong player.

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