• WHEN HE REPORTED TO THE scorer's table at the Great Western Forum, the game clock was stopped with 9:39 remaining in the first quarter. Yet it was after his entrance, and after the clock began ticking away, that time stood still. Earvin Johnson may have been 4 1/2 years older and 30 lbs. heavier than when he last played in the N.B.A., but the Magic we saw last Tuesday looked an awful lot like the Magic we remembered as he passed and deked and shot and led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 128-118 victory over the visiting Golden State Warriors. "It was great," the 36-year-old Johnson said after the game. "It was so much fun. Man!"

    Man, indeed. In 27 minutes, the Lakers' old point guard and new power forward scored 19 points, assisted on 10 other baskets and pulled down eight rebounds. As impressive as those numbers were, it was the transcendent smile he flashed throughout the game that made the night so special--not just for the 17,505 who were there, or for the 3 million households that watched the game on TV, but also for the 19 million people around the world who are trying to cope with the fact that they, like Magic, are HIV-positive. Says Sean Strub, the founder and publisher of Poz, a bimonthly magazine with a readership of 315,000: "This is going to tell tens of thousands of people with AIDS and HIV that they don't have to give up. They don't have to believe the death hype. They can go on with their lives."

    Johnson's debut performance set the stage for a tantalizing matchup Friday night between the Lakers and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Alas, Los Angeles found out the hard way why the Bulls are off to the best start in N.B.A. history (41-3). Chicago won by a score of 99-84, disappointing such celebrities as Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington and John Cusack. Magic wasn't nearly as dazzling as he had been against the Warriors, but he did score 15 points--2 fewer than Jordan--and he showed he wasn't afraid to tangle with the likes of Dennis Rodman, Chicago's rebounding master.

    If there was a bittersweet feeling to Johnson's return last week, it came from the realization that his exile from the game had been largely unnecessary. When Magic announced to the world on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had contracted the AIDS virus, it seemed to many that he was pronouncing his own death sentence. Michael Cooper, a teammate at the time, left the press conference crying. Johnson had to quit basketball then, supposedly for the sake of his own health and definitely for the peace of mind of his peers. He made cameo appearances, first at the 1992 N.B.A. All-Star Game and then as a member of the USA's Dream Team in the Barcelona Olympics, but when he tried to make a comeback in the fall of '92, the fears of some outspoken N.B.A. players forced him to call it off.

    But so much has happened in four years, in both AIDS research and AIDS education. One of the players who opposed Magic's return three years ago, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, said last week, "I have no problem playing against him, absolutely not. We're more knowledgeable now." Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns echoed Malone, though somewhat more earthily: "It's not like we're going out to have unprotected sex with Magic on the floor." (According to the Centers for Disease Control, a basketball player's chance of contracting AIDS from incidental touching is 1 in 85 million.) There are still a few holdouts on the side of ignorance, such as troublemaking guard Vernon Maxwell of the Philadelphia 76ers, who said last week, "You get scratched on your hand, and then he might get an open wound. I don't want to be there with that. I have a wife and kids." But as Johnson said, when told of Maxwell's concern, "The guy has never cared about anyone but himself, and now he's worried about the whole world?"

    It's not clear that the rest of society has come even as far as the N.B.A. The push for AIDS awareness among schoolchildren inspired by Ryan White has run into stiff resistance from conservative parents who don't want any discussion of sex, safe or otherwise, in the schools. The blatant discrimination that AIDS sufferers faced in the 1980s may have eased somewhat, but the stigma has not gone away. Witness the meanspirited provision Congress passed last week requiring armed-services personnel with HIV to be discharged from the military, even if they are otherwise in perfect health. President Clinton is expected to sign the defense authorization bill despite this rider, but has made it clear he finds it offensive. As a Pentagon spokesman put it last week, "We've all seen recently, in watching Magic Johnson's decision to return to basketball, that people who have tested HIV-positive are fully capable of carrying on near normal lives."

    Gone too is the notion that a regimen of N.B.A. basketball would weaken Johnson and accelerate the onset of AIDS. Says Dr. Michael Mellman, Johnson's primary physician and the man who originally informed him of his condition: "We still do not know how much a body can take. But for Earvin, we're talking about returning to what used to be normal for him."

    Citing doctor-patient confidentiality, Mellman will not discuss Johnson's treatment or current condition. But in an interview with TIME last week, Johnson acknowledged that he has in the past taken AZT, the antiviral drug typically administered when a person's helper T-cell count drops to 500. (See following story.) Johnson said that he is no longer taking AZT and that his T-cell count is above 500, "but I don't tell exactly what it is because then I'll have everybody talking about it." His health, he says, "has been wonderful. My doctor told me to watch out for things like deteriorating skills. Nothing so far." Johnson's added weight is due not to drug treatments, as some have speculated, but to a healthier diet and to muscle mass from his regular exercise sessions.

    Mellman believes, as do many doctors, that a positive attitude is a great ally in keeping the virus at bay. In that regard, Johnson is an ideal patient. "Initially [his HIV-positive status] was devastating, and it took a while for him to get through that," says Mellman. "But he's an extremely optimistic individual who really tends to look on the bright side of things. What you see with Earvin is what you get. He's a straight-shooting, positive guy, and I suspect that's a key to his success no matter what he does." Johnson says that in the early days of his illness, he received advice and support from Elizabeth Glaser, the late AIDS activist. He has also drawn inspiration from visits to children with AIDS. "You've got to fight for these kids and everyone else. Their stories may be different from mine, but we are still in the same boat."

    Even without basketball, Johnson has led a full life these past four years. His wife Cookie gave birth to Earvin Johnson III in 1992, and last year the Johnsons adopted a baby girl. He threw himself into business projects, one of which is the Magic Johnson Movie Theaters in Los Angeles' predominantly black community of Crenshaw; the movie complex is one of the top five in the U.S. in gross revenues and has sparked a business revival in its tough South Central neighborhood. He tried coaching the Lakers during the second half of the '94 season, but quit after finding it was harder to communicate with the modern player while wearing a suit rather than a Laker uniform. He bought 5% of the club from owner Jerry Buss, a share he had to sell back last week to comply with N.B.A. regulations that prevent a player from owning part of his own team.

    Johnson also organized a worldwide touring basketball company to raise money and consciousness in the fight against AIDS. There are some critics who say Johnson hasn't done enough in that regard, citing his attendance at only two meetings of the AIDS commission to which President Bush appointed him. But because of his high profile and charisma, and because of his own admission that he engaged in numerous unprotected sexual encounters, Johnson has probably done as much to educate the public about AIDS as anybody.

    Basketball fans who have experienced the joy of watching his genius on the court, the joy of watching his joy, can understand the longing Magic must have felt these past four years. "They said playing basketball would kill me," he says. "Well, not playing basketball was killing me." His 6-ft. 9-in. body has changed, but not his heart. When Michael Jordan successfully returned to the game last year, the original M.J. felt somewhat wistful. And as Earvin III grew older, Earvin II found another, compelling reason to return. Says Magic: "My son had heard from other fathers that his daddy was a great player but he couldn't play no more, blah, blah, blah. Now he'll get a chance to experience my playing, and he won't have people telling him--or myself telling him--that I couldn't."

    Until recently, Daddy was wondering himself if he could play anymore. But the doubt was put to rest one evening last summer. As recounted by the New York Post's Peter Vecsey, the basketball columnist who broke the news of Johnson's decision to return, Magic reluctantly accepted an invitation to play in one of the pickup games organized by Jordan while the Bulls star was in Hollywood last summer filming a movie for Warner Bros. In a game against a team that included Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Pooh Richardson, Magic scored 9 of his team's 11 points. On the ride home that night, Johnson told his friend, former N.B.A. player Lester Conner, "I needed this for myself. To know where I'm at. To know I can still play at this level against the best."

    A FEW MONTHS LATER, JOHNSON was working out with the Lakers, who until last week were a young and talented but leaderless team stuck in third place in the Pacific Division. After a few practice sessions, the guard tandem of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, and later coach Del Harris and Laker executive vice president Jerry West, put a full-court press on Johnson, asking him to return, telling him that he was just what the team needed. Said Harris: "I don't care if I have to sleep outside his house. I want him." Perhaps the most important endorsement came from Cookie. "I told him that I give him my blessing," says Magic's wife. "He feels he's been cheated, and it's something that has been nagging at him. He's in great health, so I told him to go ahead and do it." In contrast to the reception he got in '92, Johnson has been showered with support this time around. "It made me feel really good getting all those letters and telegrams from guys that you know. [Former Laker coach] Pat Riley called me and woke me up, and he was so happy. He was the guy who was telling me all along that I shouldn't have stopped."

    Last Monday Johnson signed a contract for $2.5 million for the second half of the season. At a news conference that day, he modestly claimed that he was "five steps slower." He said he was going to try to play not like the old Magic but like an old friend and rival: "I'll be doing my Larry Bird imitation now."

    If the Lakers need Magic, so does Los Angeles, which has seen a devastating earthquake, a riot and the O.J. Simpson trial since Johnson left what Laker fans used to call Showtime. The Forum was sold out for Johnson's return for only the second time all season. The No. 1 Laker fan, Nicholson, was in Miami making a movie, but there were other luminaries: Rob Lowe, Jon Lovitz, Christopher Darden. When Magic came out for warmups, the crowd was on its feet, and when the p.a. system pumped up Randy Newman's old anthem I Love L.A., the crowd shouted out the chorus ("We love it!") in unison. Grinning from ear to ear was Laker assistant coach Michael Cooper, the man who left Magic's press conference in tears four years ago.

    When Harris signaled for Johnson to replace Elden Campbell after 2:21 of the first quarter, the crowd again rose and cheered for Magic's first game as a Laker since June 12, 1991. Even though he missed his first shot, it was just like old times--an assist (the 9,922nd of his career), a right-handed running shot, a left-handed hook and then, with four minutes left in the first quarter, the real indication that he was back. Johnson faked a pass, and defender Latrell Sprewell was so fooled that Magic simply sashayed past him and laid the ball in. "That was a sweet move," Sprewell admitted later. In the second quarter, Johnson entered the game with the Lakers up by only 3 points and came out with the Lakers up by 17, thanks to his four assists and two baskets.

    The second half was more of the same, and when the game ended with the ball in Magic's hand, he pumped his fist and flashed that smile. Even more telling than Johnson's individual stats was the team's assist total for the game--an N.B.A. season-high 44. It was Magic's generosity that was contagious, not his illness. The Lakers also set some sort of record for expressions of gratitude. Center Vlade Divac, one of the few current Lakers who had played with Magic, said, "I feel like he never left." Owner Buss was so effusive that he strained a metaphorical muscle: "I feel the same as Louis Armstrong did when he sang Hello, Dolly for the first time. 'It's so nice to have you back where you belong.'" Forward Cedric Ceballos spoke for all the Lakers, and indeed many sports fans, when he said, "When Magic is out there, there is sunshine and happiness." In this age of rampant Cowboyism, sports needs Magic as much as the Lakers and L.A. do.

    Two days after the game, Johnson talked about his feelings. "It was like being stranded on a desert island, and you finally get home! I finally had gone home." And when he did go home to Cookie and the kids, what did three-year-old Earvin III say? "He said, 'Daddy, I watched you play!' And that's all I needed right there."

    Not so long ago, Magic was the poster boy for how to avoid AIDS. Now he is The Man to show people how to deal with it. "Enjoy life," he says. "Live. I'm not just talking about people with HIV or AIDS, but about people with problems or handicaps or whatever. For people who have HIV, come out and share your life with somebody and make them feel better. Try to hold it among parents or brothers or sisters. People put so much pressure on themselves by holding it to themselves. You carry a lot of weight when you keep it to yourself."

    As Magic has reminded the world, the time remaining doesn't matter as much as what you do with that time.