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It's Magic and Michael

Much history has gone into the books since the last time Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were not a part of the same mutual admiration society. Time heals all wounds, apparently, and the difficulties of the past between the two men have sufficiently healed to where a lasting bond has been formed.

Pro basketball's dream matchup for the ages _ Magic vs. Michael _ is here, finally, starting this afternoon with Game 1 of the 44th NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers at Chicago Stadium.

They can talk all they want about how it is a team game. But because of Johnson and Jordan, the two best players residing on the planet, NBC is hoping for numbers that rival the 15.9 rating for the Lakers-Celtics series in 1987 (featuring Magic vs. Larry Bird). That happens to be the highest rating for the NBA Finals.

"It's great for the league, having the two best players going against one another," said Jordan of the Bulls, who was voted the league's most valuable player.

Michael will guard Magic, but it appears that Magic will not guard Michael, effectively negating the anticipated come-one, come-all one-on-one showdown.

"We're going to lead our teams, but it's not like it's going to be Michael vs. Magic," said Johnson of the Lakers, who received the last two MVP awards before this season. "We cannot win a game by ourselves. We both understand that."

But the two greatest players in pro basketball now have something much more important in common, something that transcends the game itself _ respect.

Six years ago, Magic vs. Michael had all the trappings of a heavyweight title bout.

They didn't like each other. Period. And what made even less sense was that they didn't even know each other.

It all started at the 1985 NBA All-Star Game in Indianapolis, where Jordan, a rookie, was the victim of some veteran players who conspired to keep the ball away from him. Those players included Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Johnson. Jordan shot just 2-of-9 for seven points.

Several reasons were given for the freeze-out, including Jordan showing up at the dunking contest wearing an athletic company warmup instead of regular NBA clothing, and Jordan's success in obtaining a lucrative shoe contract.

Jordan placed the blame on the three players because Charles Tucker, an agent who was then associated with Johnson, Aguirre and Thomas, suggested that the players made an example of Jordan.

"I'm not sure anyone knew what really was happening, or whether it was even true. But a lot of things came out of that situation," Jordan said.

"I guess it was jealousy. All of the things that were happening with me (endorsements and the like) were things that should have been happening to him (Johnson) long before because of the success he had in the league and the way he came into the league."

Now, Jordan said, everything is fine.

"Maybe because of our position in the game and the fact that we do things for one another, we've become pretty close," Jordan said.

"A mutual respect has developed. We understand what each of us has to go through in a season with the public and the media.

"We have respect for one another on and off the court now, and I think it will continue."

When the Bulls visited the Lakers later in the 1985 season, Johnson, who has denied any knowledge of a freeze-out, approached Jordan and suggested a meeting.

"I felt that it was time for me to step in and let him know what was happening. So when they came to play us, I said, "Look, we've got to talk,' " Johnson said Saturday.

"Forget the basketball. Man-to-man. And that's what we needed to get _ man-to-man respect. I've been respecting him even more since after we talked. I respect him more than anybody now, because I know what he's about. He understands what I'm about. On and off the court."

On the court, there may never again be two better players than Magic and Michael.

"There will be a lot of highlight films made out of this series," Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy said, "plays that only Michael and Magic can make."

Where to watch

WTMV (Channel 32) will broadcast today's Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. The game will be broadcast through these cable systems and their respective channels:

Vision, 27; Paragon (Pinellas), 9; Paragon (Tampa), 8; Jones Intercable, 32; Cablevision Industries, 27; Peninsula Cablevision, 5; TCI Cablevision (Pasco), 39; Telestat (Pasco), 11; Telestat (Hillsborough), 2; Point Brittany Cable, 7; Paragon Pinellas, 12.