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Magic Johnson is keeping NBA players up nights again. "He makes
anybody a contender," says Rockets guard Kenny Smith. "He'd make
Philadelphia a contender."

Johnson stole the NBA spotlight last week when word leaked that
he would embark on a comeback with the Lakers after going 4 1/2
years without playing in an NBA game. There had been a cameo at
the 1992 All-Star Game and a moving performance with the Dream
Team at the '92 Olympics, but Johnson's basketball activity
following the shocking 1991 revelation that he was HIV positive
has consisted mostly of celebrity tours and charity games.

He has seriously considered then backed away from about a half
dozen comeback attempts, alternately teasing and torturing
Lakers fans in the process. One of those aborted comebacks was
in 1992, after Jazz forward Karl Malone voiced concerns about
competing against an HIV-positive athlete. Convinced that
improved AIDS education had diminished opposition to his
comeback, Johnson on Monday returned to the game he can't seem
to walk away from.

Western Conference contenders immediately began upgrading their
notes on the Lakers, who at 24-18 through Sunday had the
sixth-best record in the West. "If anybody can do it, Magic
can," says Rudy Tomjanovich, coach of the two-time champion
Rockets. "And the Lakers were already a good team without him."

But Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin
McHale, who made a living battling Magic and the Lakers during a
13-year career with the Celtics, believes that Johnson's age,
36, should temper everyone's expectations. "I think he'll make
the Lakers better but not good enough to win the whole thing,"
says McHale. "What people need to understand is that Magic will
no longer be the point guard wizard. He's going to be playing
more power forward. He's not going to dominate the game the way
he once did."

Lakers coach Del Harris envisions Johnson in a sixth-man role,
playing more of a power game than a floor game. He says Johnson
is in excellent condition. "There's going to be the normal
overreaction," Harris says. "When Michael Jordan came back last
year, people were saying, 'Wow, now Chicago will win it all.'
But Michael, who was away a shorter time than Earvin [and was
only 32 when he returned], wasn't smooth. His timing was off. In
fairness to Earvin, we need to put him in that same perspective."


Agent David Falk has a busy summer planned. His eldest daughter,
Daina, turns 13 this month, and Falk is taking her to Europe for
two weeks in July--at the height of the free-agent auction.
"We'll probably go the third week of the month," Falk says.
"That leaves plenty of time to conduct business before I take

If Falk's comments smack of smugness, it's no wonder. When the
most abundant crop of free agents in NBA history hits the market
on July 1, Falk will be accepting bids on many of the most
coveted players--Miami's Alonzo Mourning, Denver's Dikembe
Mutombo, Washington's Juwan Howard, Charlotte's Kenny Anderson
and Chicago's Michael Jordan.

Here is Falk's take on their signing prospects.

Mourning. Before his rookie season with the Hornets in 1992,
Mourning was widely perceived as defense-oriented, a
shot-blocker. Falk insisted he would be an all-around star.
After a summer of acrimonious negotiations, which included a
brief holdout, Mourning signed for six years and $26.25 million,
with an escape clause after four years.

As Mourning blossomed into an All-Star, the Hornets tried to
extend his deal. Their offer: nine years, $100 million. Falk
said it wasn't enough. Last preseason Falk presented a
"hypothetical number" of what it would take to keep Mourning.
Hornets sources say the number was between $16 million and $18
million a season; Falk says only that Mourning was willing to
take less than market value to stay put.

The Hornets expected Falk to demand a contract worth more than
Charlotte forward Larry Johnson's 12-year, $84 million deal.
But, says team president Spencer Stolpen, "when [Falk] started
telling us Zo was better than all our other players combined, so
he should get as much as all of them combined, we knew it was

Because of his impending free-agent status, Mourning was allowed
to choose his trade destination: Miami, where Heat owner Micky
Arison has deep pockets. Falk won't reveal Mourning's asking
price, but nobody expects him to change teams again. "He's very
happy," Falk says. "He loves [Heat coach] Pat Riley."

Mutombo. According to Falk, in 1993, after Mutombo's second
season, Denver wanted to extend the 7'2" center's contract. Falk
proposed a deal that would have locked up Mutombo, then 27,
until he was 35. But the Nuggets needed to sign rookie forward
Rodney Rogers, and they couldn't pay Mutombo's price and satisfy
their first-round pick as well. Falk was uncompromising.
Negotiations broke off. "I know what people say," says Falk. "I
was trying to screw Rodney Rogers for not choosing me [to
represent him]. Not true. Denver had to choose between taking
care of Rogers, their rookie, or Dikembe, their franchise. That
was their window."

Falk says he won't negotiate with Denver again until July. He
confirms the price tag for Mutombo, who will earn $3.25 million
this season, will be significantly higher than it was in 1993.

Howard. In 1994 he signed an 11-year, $36.6 million contract
with an escape clause that kicks in this summer. Falk expects
Howard to get more than Washington forward Chris Webber (who
last October signed a six-year, $57 million contract)--or else.
"I'm glad Chris Webber made a lot of money," says Falk. "Now
it's Juwan's turn. Washington can't afford to lose him. He is
their best player."

But sources say the Bullets' offer will not exceed Webber's
total contract, and Washington doubts anyone else will pay
Howard that kind of money. Detroit and Miami want Howard badly,
but at what price?

Anderson. Until a few weeks ago Anderson played for the Nets and
was represented by Richard Howell. But shortly after he signed
on with Falk, Anderson was happily on his way to Charlotte.
Nevertheless, many doubt that Falk can negotiate a six-year, $40
million deal--the offer made by New Jersey and rejected by
Anderson last fall. Falk counters that the deal was diluted by
options and partial guarantees.

Jordan. How do you put a price tag on the greatest player in the
game? "I create the market for Michael," Falk declares. "In many
respects, who would argue [against the proposition that] he
could be worth $100 million [a season]?"

Falk says he has given Jordan's negotiations tremendous thought
but prefers to keep his strategy private. "Other agents love to
blast me, saying Michael Jordan is underpaid," says Falk. "Let
me say it for them: Michael Jordan is the most underpaid athlete
in the history of sport.

"But when he signed in 1988 [an eight-year, $28 million deal],
he was the highest-paid player in the NBA. Michael's window is
here. I have every confidence [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf will
do the right thing. I know he's a creative man. I hope we don't
waste much time on this."

After all, Europe beckons.


When the Hawks stunned the Magic by outscoring them 28-12 in the
final quarter of a spirited 96-84 victory last Friday, Atlanta
extended its winning streak to 10 games. In nine of those
victories, Atlanta won with a second-half surge.

During the streak the Hawks stepped up their defensive pressure,
provided mainly by swingman Stacey Augmon and point guard Mookie
Blaylock. In fact, if you're looking for a barometer of the
team's fortunes, check out Blaylock's numbers. After enduring
one of the worst stretches of his seven-year career in December,
Blaylock turned himself--and the Hawks--around in January.

Here is the tale of his last two months (through Sunday).

December January
Games 14 13
Record 4-10 11-2
Points 13.0 20.0
FG Pct. .363 .471
3-Pt. Pct. .299 .500
Assists 4.2 6.2
Rebounds 3.6 4.1
Steals 2.6 2.8
Turnovers 2.4 2.2

Blaylock says the team's renewed commitment on defense coaxed
him out of his doldrums. "I look back on [December] like it
never happened," he says.


Clippers forward Loy Vaught, last Thursday, against the Nuggets:
48 MIN, 11-15 FG, 4-4 FT, 26 PTS, 13 REBS, 1 PF. The unsung
Vaught, who has toiled heroically for the much-maligned Clippers
his entire six-year career, didn't take a breather as he led
L.A. to a 94-93 victory. It was the Clippers' 16th triumph of
the season--one fewer than they had all last season.


Simon Gourdine's stint as executive director of the National
Basketball Players Association lasted only nine months. A
movement spurred by Knicks center Patrick Ewing drove Gourdine
out of office last week, and he will be replaced during the
All-Star break by one of six candidates: former union financial
adviser Charles Bennett; attorney Dennis Coleman, who represents
the NBA's retired players; former Nuggets star Alex English;
Suns assistant Paul Silas; or Len Elmore or Bill Strickland,
both agents. Sources say Silas is emerging as a popular
choice.... Swap Talk of the Week: Charlotte wanted to send
center Robert Parish and a draft pick to Toronto for center
Oliver Miller. The Raptors offered forward John Salley instead.
No go. If the trade had gone through, it would have been
hilarious to watch Toronto vice president of basketball Isiah
Thomas welcome Parish aboard. The Chief loathes Thomas from the
days of the heated Boston-Detroit rivalry in the '80s, when the
Celtics' Parish routinely refused to speak to the Pistons'
Thomas or shake his hand before games.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN At Lakers practice last week, Magic appeared to have added some beef for his inside game. [Magic Johnson]COLOR PHOTO: BOB BOSATO Mourning (top) is hooked on Riley, while Howard (5) may be driving the price too high for the Bullets. [Alonzo Mourning shooting basketball over opponent]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Juwan Howard and Scottie Pippen]