Magic his old self at Hall of Fame induction

Updated: September 28, 2002, 3:18 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Someone tried to slip a dark Hall of Fame blazer over Magic Johnson's robust shoulders, but it needed a harder tug. The jacket was a little snug.

The Other Larry
Philadelphia 76ers vets Aaron McKie and Eric Snow chartered a plane to Springfield to attend the induction of their coach, Larry Brown. Actually, another Sixer was booked on the same flight as a surprise guest.

Allen Iverson.

Alas, at the last minute, Iverson pulled out of the trip without much explanation. Which spoiled what would have been a nice (and unexpected) gesture on AI's part, on the weekend before training camp opens.

Especially given how Brown was gushing about his franchise player earlier in the day.

"I just spent time with him the last three weeks, watching him come to the gym and how he's interacted with the players, how hard he's worked on his game, seeing the things he's trying to do on the court," Brown said. "I hadn't seen that before. I know what he's gone through, especially this year. I think it's going to make him stronger and better."

And &

"I think Allen has a lot of respect for the guys we have coming in, and the people we have returning, and I truly believe he understands he has to change his game a little bit."

And &

"I watch him now, and he's trying to play like a point guard this summer, get everybody involved. Watching him in pick-up games, he's defending, becoming more vocal and he's leading by example. Just showing up every day with his teammates is a huge step."

Attendance at the Hall would have been another one, but it might be a long wait for an explanation. Monday is media day in Philly, on the eve of Sixers camp, but there are already fears that Iverson will be avoiding reporters, in response to the aggressive coverage of his July arrest. All 14 misdemeanor charges against Iverson were dismissed, all but two within two weeks of the incident.

And Brown?

As he readied for induction, Brown was simply feeling "overwhelmed" by the prospect of belonging to the same class as Magic, Lute Olson and the legendary Harlem Globetrotters.

"When I was a little boy, the greatest day of my life was to go to Madison Square Garden and see the Harlem Globetrotters play the college all-stars," Brown said.

Just one of Friday's episodes that led to the usual from Magic.

Smiles.

As ever, there were lots of toothy grins, first at the new Basketball Hall of Fame and then at the Springfield Civic Center. First at the morning news conference where Magic got his new sport coat, and then in the evening at the induction ceremony many feared he would never live to see.

Then came the unusual. When he finally took the podium, to formally step into the Hall at night's end, Magic's eyes moistened and his voice cracked. So steely when he told the world in 1991 about the "HIV virus I have attained," Johnson couldn't choke back all the emotion this time as he was thanking (among others) Pat Riley, his parents and his wife.

"The only reason that I'm living after 11 years, honey, is because of you," Magic said, looking at Cookie Johnson.

Life was a central theme on Johnson's induction day, largely because he kept bringing it up. Between smiles.

"The thing I'm happiest about," Magic said hours before his big moment, "is I'm actually here myself to accept this honor. I'm thankful that I'm living.

"[HIV is] still laying asleep in my body. The medicine is doing its job, I'm doing my job and God's doing His job. I'm doing marvelous.

"Eleven years ago, nobody knew. Everybody thought I wouldn't be here. It feels great that I am here but not just here. I'm here and very, very healthy."

Looking healthier than perhaps the tailors anticipated, the burly Johnson only had to glance to his left at the morning press breakfast to know how fortunate he is, more than a decade into his battle against the AIDS virus. There sat the mother and brother of the late Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian sensation who tragically died in a car accident long before his enshrinement.

Magic also made it to the renovated Hall with Larry Bird at his side, and Bird's presence eventually got to him, too. He knows Bird doesn't like these big events, but Magic asked anyway, hoping Larry Legend would want to share the glare one more time. The result was another surprise: Bird cracking the best lines of the evening, before Johnson's emotional acceptance speech.

Bird joked about Celtics fans, telling them "it's time to lay down your weapons" because "the battle is finally over." If we're lucky, it was a preview of the fare forthcoming in Bird and Johnson's joint coffee-table book project.

Much as he loathes the spotlight, Bird couldn't refuse the opportunity to toast and roast his old rival, helpless against the force that links them like no pair in the sports history.

"We're going to meet up again," Magic told Bird and the Civic Center crowd in closing, having gathered himself. "I was waiting 'til your back was a little better so you wouldn't have an excuse when I took you down into the garage or the park. Now I look at you, you're tan, ready to go. So now let's get on. We can play checkers. We should probably play P-I-G because H-O-R-S-E is a little long for both of us."

It's a duel that dates to 1979, and the sight of them together again only made it seem more unlikely that their individual rivalry can be replicated in the future. With the NBA's top prospects so rarely finishing college, or sometimes not going at all -- or sometimes coming from as far away as China -- it's difficult to envision a twosome to match these foils and their story.

When can we expect to see a repeat of the two best players in the country taking their schools to the NCAA title game, then matriculating to the two most storied franchises in the league?

That bond had Magic lobbying the Hall for early induction in 1998, only two years after his latest retirement, so he could go in with Bird's class. It's why Magic, even with "an A+" grade from his doctors just two weeks ago, needed Bird here to feel right.

"It still ended up great ... once in a lifetime," Magic said of Bird giving him away to the Class of 2002. "... If people weren't in here, we'd probably be playing H-O-R-S-E right now. We're still two crazy, possessed guys, even at this age. We're never going to change."

Briefly ...
Johnson was told that he had to be introduced Friday night by a current Hall of Famer. Otherwise, Magic said, Heat coach Pat Riley would have shared the job with Bird. Riley did attend Friday's ceremony. When Bird was inducted in 1998, his "chaperones" were former Celtics coach Bill Fitch and ex-teammate Bill Walton. & Magic, on Michael Jordan playing at 40 for Washington: "He brought Stackhouse to be the lead guy. He's going to be the second guy now, I truly believe, and it's going to make his job easier to have a guy like Stackhouse, who can still take over a game and score. Michael wouldn't come back if he wasn't going to be effective. Trust me." Asked if Jordan can indeed accept a second-fiddle role, Magic said: "Yeah, because that's going to make him more effective. At his age, you can't think he's going to dominate and be the lead guy any more. He understands that." & Magic, on Petrovic: "He could shoot it from the outside, but he was also the first guy from Europe who could get shots off the dribble. It's just a sad moment that he's not here himself to accept this. But I think every player coming from overseas should actually thank him. If it wasn't for him playing as well as he played, I don't think the NBA would have the other (foreign) guys."

Marc Stein is the NBA senior writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at marc.stein@espn3.com.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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