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Magic Johnson's return to professional basketball Tuesday night at the Forum was not a triumph of tolerance and understanding over fear and ignorance.

Our understanding of Johnson's illness - he is HIV-positive - hasn't come that far.Johnson's return was yet another example that overwhelming star power, an oversize ego and an overemphasis of sport conquers common sense in this country.

Tuesday night, with the Golden State Warriors visiting the house that Magic built, the gleam was back in Johnson's eyes. The world watched as Magic performed his usual trickery with a basketball.

More than 90 minutes before tipoff, a throng of photographers jockeyed for position to get the perfect snapshot of Johnson warming up. Outside, tickets were being scalped for $1,000. The Forum again was the cool place to be in LA. Hollywood's beautiful people were back.

Few people can create that kind of excitement. A blind man could see the joy in Johnson's eyes.

I couldn't help but feel sorry for him.

Thirty-six years on this earth, and Earvin Johnson still doesn't know what's important in life. His greatest joy still comes from patting a leather ball and having people who don't know him scream his name.

Thirty-six years on this earth, and Earvin Johnson is still a slave to the limelight and his basketball jones.

Common sense tells me that Earvin Johnson - a multimillionaire with great influence, a father of three young children and a husband to a devoted wife who stuck by him even though his brainless, rampant infidelity caused him to contract the 20th century's most lethal plague - could find something more important to do with the remaining years of his life than playing in the NBA.

Common sense tells me his remaining years - whether it's one or 15 - would be better spent fellowshipping with his family, instead of traveling the North America with Vlade Divac, Nick Van Exel and the Lakers.

Don't misunderstand. I don't think HIV-positive people should crawl into a corner and wait to die. Of course they have a right to continue their life.

It just troubles me that a supposedly worldy man could travel this entire earth the last 15 years and reach the conclusion that life offers no greater joy than sinking a hook shot in the clutch.

Magic's basketball jones says something about all of us.

We're the world's biggest group of celebrity worshippers. We have created this environment that creates Magic Johnsons, addicted sports stars who have an insatiable desire for just one more hit.

Johnson's been living for this hit ever since the day he retired, Nov. 7, 1991.

Fear and ignorance sabotaged his first attempt at a return in 1992. Some players, most notably All-Star Karl Malone, voiced concern about playing against Johnson. So Magic quit before firing a regular-season shot.

Common sense tells me that that same fear and ignorance remain. But now players fear media and public backlash more than they do the threat of bumping into a bleeding Magic.

Johnson's star appeal has many powers; creating sympathy is one of them. If Johnson were just an average ballplayer, I guarantee you Malone and others would be voicing the exact same concerns they voiced in 1992.

Magic's return is, in truth, insignificant. It says nothing positive about Johnson or any of us.