Perhaps there wasn't any difference between the greeting received by Earvin (Magic) Johnson yesterday at Howard University and those he received elsewhere around the country last summer. Perhaps, but it would be hard to convince Johnson of that.

In Washington, speaking to a group of school children on the importance of staying in school, as well as promoting an NBA all-star exhibition game tonight at Capital Centre at 7:30, Johnson was a man at peace. This is in great part because of the six-game victory by his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, over the Boston Celtics in June's NBA championship series.

The triumph was an atonement of sorts for a seven-game loss to Boston in the 1984 finals, a defeat many attributed directly to miscues at crucial moments by Johnson. Vilified in the press, Johnson went into seclusion for most of last summer.

"I could handle the press and what they were saying about me," Johnson said. "But it's when you let yourself down as a player and as a person that you really sink down low, and man, I was low."

When he did emerge from his shell, touring the country for summer camps and speaking engagements, he sensed that for some of the spectators, a bit of the thrill was gone.

"They seemed happy enough to see me, they still responded positively but there was always someone who was kind of down, who wanted to know what had happened to me," Johnson said. "This all feels different."

To yesterday's crowd, perhaps recalling the 18 points and 14 assists he averaged against the Celtics in this season's finals, Johnson was once again magical. The group listened avidly throughout his short talk, which touched upon the Very Special Arts program of the National Committee, Arts with the Handicapped, one of the beneficiaries of tonight's charity game.

Among those joining Johnson in the game will be Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks and George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs. Providing the opposition will be NBA stalwarts like Jeff Malone of the Bullets, Andrew Toney of the Philadelphia 76ers and Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks.

Many of the players participating are doing so because of Johnson's impetus. "I decided to come here and play in the game to help youth," Johnson said during his talk. "Someone helped me when I was young, now I'd like to return the favor."

The six-year veteran would also like a return trip to the championship series. No team has repeated as league titlists since the 1969 Celtics.

"If you get to the finals then you have a shot," Johnson said. "We know we have a chance at a unique opportunity. Maybe we can play up the fact that it's going to be Kareem's (Abdul-Jabbar) last season. Whatever we do I know we'll have to have a different attitude from last season."