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MALONE AID-ED AWARENESS

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There was The Debut on Wednesday, followed by The Reunion on Friday, when Michael paid his respects, and then Sunday, already five days into Magic Johnson's second coming, there was The Villain.

Karl Malone didn't ask for any of this of course. The NBA isn't the World Wrestling Federation, and he sure never had any interest in feuding with anyone in particular, least of all the man with the biggest smile in all of basketball. But almost four years ago, when Magic Johnson was thinking of un-retiring the first time, it was Malone's voice that rose an inch above the din that kept wondering, well, uh, you know, what . . . if . . . he . . . gets . . . cut?Lots of people wondered that back then. It was 1992. As far as the mainstream knew, Rock Hudson had died of AIDS and that was about it. Go back 11 years before that and "AIDS" wasn't in anyone's vocabulary, period, let alone "HIV." The only place they knew about it pre-1981 was on the Kinshasa Highway in Africa. Then, all of a sudden, just like that, Magic Johnson brought it onto the freeway, or, rather, it brought him. It's been the fast lane ever since.

From 1992 to right now, today, in AIDS awareness years is like going from, say, the early 1600's to 1996.

As Malone acknowledged last night, "The old way (of thinking) was `I don't even want to be in a room with that person.' But now we're more wise."

Or at least more educated.

It's possible - and he'll never get the public credit for this he deserves - that no one was more wise four years ago than Karl Malone, who, when he was asked for his opinion, didn't pass judgment on a subject he knew next to nothing about. He didn't take the easy path and rush to a fellow superstar's defense, saying, `Oh, what the heck, Magic's a good guy. Let's play!'

Instead, he said that if Magic continued to play, "it will always be (a question) in the back of your mind."

For that mature and measured observation, he was delivered four seasons later to the Great Western Forum crowd last night, Magic's crowd, whipped into a fever pitch after five days of Mardi Gras with their reborn captain.

"At forward, Karl Malone," said the P.A. announcer as he announced the visitors from Utah.

Boos rained down from the rafters. You'd have thought Karl Malone had trucked in the virus from Africa himself. As far as this L.A. crowd was concerned, he wouldn't have been any more politically incorrect if he'd sprayed oil in Santa Monica Bay, contributed to the Dole campaign, shot a spotted owl, showed up in a seal fur jacket, and asked them all to join him in an opening prayer.

Once the game began, every move Malone made was met by more hisses, boos, slurs, and heckles. All of which did nothing more than set him off on a 39-point run. If the fans in L.A. had been better educated, they'd have known their boos were only hindering their own cause; that the last thing you want to do is tick this guy off. This is the same Karl Malone who once, after not being voted onto the All-Star team by the fans, scored 61 points the next night against Milwaukee.

"Fans can boo me all they want, I don't care," Malone said afterward, shrugging. "Makes me play better."

As it turned out, his 39-point, 12-rebound, five-assist outburst was the only poetry for the Jazz, as the Magic Express rebounded from its Friday night genuflection in front of Michael Jordan and the Bulls to score a seven-point win. From now to June, it is not going to be easy for teams that have to make an appearance in the Lakers' new revival tent. Magic Johnson may be slower and heavier than he was four years ago, but he can still turn up the electricity without having to even bother looking for the switch.

He displayed that again last night, and, beyond than, when it was all said and done he also displayed an understanding and appreciation for all that's transpired since he tested positive for HIV. For one thing, an entire basketball league has had to endure a cram course on the subject. A cram course Karl Malone helped launch. Last night, Magic Johnson acknowledged that.

"What he (Karl) said four years ago helped the league out, it helped everybody, to get educated," Magic Johnson said. "Give him credit for being a man, for having the courage to say what he thought. I thank him. He's a good person. Let's move on."