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The Magic Diet: Fewer Nachos, More Fruit

Oprah Winfrey is not the diet inspiration-sensation of 1988.

Don’t get me wrong, Oprah did a marvelous job of trimming off, what was it, 175 pounds? A ton o’ fat. I didn’t see her famous diet show, but I heard that for dramatic effect she brought out a plastic bag filled with fat, equivalent to the amount she lost. At least I assume the fat in the bag was representational, and not the actual fat she lost.

Good for Oprah.

But if we’re looking for a diet that had a real impact on our civilization, I have to give the nod to Earvin Johnson, the transition magician, the sleek be-sneakered sheik of the Laker blue streak, the string bean dean of lean cuisine.

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Two seasons ago Magic was the National Basketball Assn.'s most valuable player. Last season his play was off a tick. Laker Coach Pat Riley could be heard grumbling about Johnson’s extra poundage. Was Magic eating himself out of the hall of fame?

He was still good enough to lead the Lakers to an NBA championship, but not good enough to satisfy Magic Johnson.

In the off-season, he trimmed his body fat from 14% to 4%, roughly the same as that of a coyote, and came to training camp at 218 pounds, 9 lighter than his standard reporting weight.

Result: Less is more. Magic is back.

Last week, 4 games, Johnson averaged 29.5 points, 15.5 assists, 10 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 61% shooting.

Not only that, but when he shoots his tippy-toe jump shot these days, Magic is in danger of actually leaving the ground, i.e.: jumping.

What happened?

“I knew I was headin’ toward 30 and I needed a change,” says Magic, who will turn 30 next August and is playing in his 10th NBA season. “So at the start of the off-season I said, ‘From now on I’ll eat twice a day, eat a lot of chicken and fish, a lot of fruit.’

“I ran on the beach for the first time ever in my life. Every day, 4 miles, then wind sprints. Riley and (team trainer Gary) Vitti would always be tellin’ me (to come to camp lighter), but you figure you’re young, you feel good, why change?”

But last season, Magic felt himself slow down, and he suffered a painful and nagging groin injury that seemed to bring his mortality into focus.

The first thing he did was go cold turkey on nachos.

“Nachos, yeah, that’s the big fella,” Magic says, wistfully. “I’d watch TV at night in bed, I’d have to have my nachos. No more nachos. That hurt me, really hurt me. I’m a snack man. I love nachos. I’d have nachos 5 nights out of 7, at least. My (live-in) cook would make ‘em up, or I’d get in my car and drive down to Westwood to get some.

“If I was watchin’ a good movie, a good Western or mystery, I might have two orders.

“And cookies--Mrs. Fields’, and ice cream late at night. Sometimes I’d double up, nachos and cookies. You give me some of that honey Haagen Dazs, Mrs. Fields, oh, man . . . “

Magic closes his eyes tight, remembering lost loves.

“I cut out pizza. The popcorn had to go. . . . Now I had to substitute something. Now I had fruit salads, apples, peaches, plums.”

Magic’s dietary change was a sudden and staggering blow to the L.A. dairy industry, but it worked.

“I saw the difference right away, yeah, when I got to camp. I’m glidin’, just runnin’ all day, makin’ moves, cuts, everything. It’s a big difference, a big, big change. Once you see it happen on the floor you say, ‘Yeah, it’s workin’.

“It surprised me. I said, ‘I should’ve been doin’ this all along.’ (Pause) Nahhh. I enjoyed snackin’, too. I won’t say I feel better now than the first couple years, when I was a young man. But better than any time in the last 5 or 6 years, yeah. I felt good in ’86-87 (the MVP season), but now I feel better than that.

“I can get to places right away. Through seams, through gaps. I’m even gettin’ some steals now. It’s flowin’, it’s really good.”

I hope I don’t hear from the National Nacho Advisory Council, taking me to task for indicting their fine product. I should point out that nachos are a vital food, at least as nutritional as Snickers, but that Magic crossed that fine line between enjoyment and abuse.

Some people can handle their snacks, eat them recreationally. Not Magic. He finally admitted to himself that he is a nachoholic, a cowhead. Through sheer will power, he pulled himself up out of the cholesterol gutter.

It was an exercise in mind over matter, convincing himself that good food can be as soul satisfying as the slop.

“I’m looking forward to that apple tonight,” Magic says, with conviction. “Maybe a tangerine.”

Ah, the fruits of victory.


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