The Magic Hasn't : Worn Out for Him : or for Basketball

When Earvin Johnson Jr. first came west to play basketball, anyone on Hollywood and Vine could have written the script. It was as predictable as a Warner Bros. musical, as star-crossed as grand opera.

Here was this cheerful, gifted, naive kid with this great big wide smile, like a kid coming downstairs on Christmas morning, and he was stepping into angle city. The town that made its living off wide-eyed country kids like this.

And this one was a pre-sold. No one could do with a basketball the things Earvin Johnson could. And he came equipped with this made-for-television nickname, Magic. Louis B. Mayer would have drooled. P.T. Barnum would have put him on an elephant. Disney would have named a ride after him. Hollywood agents sent cars after him.

He came to the Lakers, who were a strange, becalmed team of underachievers. They played a kind of bored game, like old men at pinochle in the park. They had talent, but it was kind of robotic, mechanical. They didn't exactly clank as they went through the motions, but you found yourself checking around for knobs that, if found, would read: "Third place, Pacific Division" or "Do not disturb."

Magic changed it all. He restored the pure joy of winning. He brought a gaiety to Forum games that had not been there since the glory years of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The style of play went from baroque to "Showtime USA."

Magic shrewdly played to the egos of a team of guys each conscious of his own turf. Magic was as unselfish as a butler. He shot the ball only when it was a choice of either do that or eat it.

He brought the ball upcourt. He did the dirty work on the offensive rebounds. He scrambled, he worked--and he smiled. Oh, how he smiled. He lit up the floor even when the going was bleakest. The Lakers had always been a team that glowered. It was as if they didn't like each other. Guys stoking ocean liners looked happier.

Everybody liked Magic. He was like the little brother who is the clown in the family because that seems to be the best way to hold it together.

The wise guys were impressed but not convinced. They had seen this act before. Errol Flynn had been a young naif, too.

They knew what the next scenes would bring. After all, Magic was only a college sophomore when he first came out. The world looks like a balloon then. Wait'll he found out there was no Santa Claus. Wait till he found out people lied.

That was six years ago. By now, Hollywood figured, the young Earvin Johnson would have found the same town other marquee names had. There would be a couple of failed marriages, there would have been a few 2-o'clock-in-the-morning smashups on Pacific Coast Highway, a lawsuit here and there.

There would have been missed practices, there would have been cryptic stories in the paper quoting unnamed teammates criticizing Magic for hogging the ball, hogging the spotlight, clogging the fast break. There would have been feuds with the press. Magic would have gone the route of 9 out of 10 guys who make it big in Hollywood, was the betting at the better watering holes. I mean, who did Magic think he was trying to kid?

Four years ago, the shoe seemed to drop. There was trouble in Paradise. The team had begun to clank again. Magic, coming off a season-long injury, was beside himself. The smile became a little forced, the play uninspired.

He requested a trade. He didn't want to be a part of this wind-up offense. He wanted to play the kind of game where you could grin again while doing it.

The owner astounded the world by firing the coach. No one was more astounded than Magic. "I had invited him to fire me, not the coach," he protested.

The damage was done. The wise guys had their verification. What better affirmation was needed that Magic had gone Hollywood? He wasn't that sweet kid from the sticks anymore, he was a job-killer. He was a dictator. Proof of the adage that there's no way a $50,000-a-year coach could tell a $25-million hired hand what to do.

The resultant publicity, most of it bad, could either chasten or embitter a man. Magic being Magic, it did neither. What it did was, it taught him a lesson. Now he had to add coaches to the list of people whose feathers he was careful not to ruffle.

The Lakers have won two NBA championships and have been in the championship finals four of the five years Magic has played with the team. He still plays the kind of blue-collar, get-the-ball game he has always played. He hasn't fired any coaches in eons.

He sat in his new, multi-roomed home in a secluded canyon off Bel-Air the other day and reflected on his career to date.

A caller noted: "In a way, you've been a disappointment. You've disappointed all the types who would have bet you'd star in a couple of divorces, two-Cadillac collisions and a brawling-in-disco story by now."

Magic smiled. "I'm sorry to disappoint them," he said.

The house, although expensive, isn't the ermine rug, flashing lights, multi-gadgeted, white-on-white pad you might expect. It is a Tudor mansion and as sedate as a fox hunt. A Bronco half-truck, not a Rolls, sits in the driveway.

"You never go anywhere in an entourage," the caller accused. "Shouldn't you have 12 people hanging on your every word? Who gets girls for you?"

Magic smiled. "I know who I am--and who I am not. I often drive to work by myself. You get a lot of good thinking done that way."

The caller persisted. "People tend to blame you when the team trips up. You hear people say Larry Bird outplayed you and that's why the Lakers lost the title last year, that you made mistakes."

Magic smiled. "I did," he said. "But I won't make those mistakes again. That's the great thing about basketball. You always get next season to make up for your mistakes."

It is clear that the timetable is running out for Magic Johnson to turn into a pumpkin, or even a heel.

Maybe, someplace, a portrait is getting ravaged and dissipated and disillusioned and cynical. But the original still looks like the kid who got off the bus with a new suitcase and a bag of lollipops. Shirley Temple could play the part.

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