They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. If you doubt it, ask Magic Johnson, who can feel the warmth of their glow all the way down to Madison Square Garden.
Was he struggling? No problem. He hit the big city and as fast as you could say “Showtime,” he had scored 15 points in the second half Tuesday night, including a five-foot hook and a 15-foot jump shot in the last minute, leading the Lakers over the Knicks, 100-97.
Johnson, who scored 22 points, was having so much fun that once a referee ruled against him and he high-fived the official, Jake O’Donnell. On his last trip here, a CBS camera crew followed him everywhere, and after the game Connie Chung kissed him.
You’ve heard of Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood? This is Mr. Johnson’s neighborhood.
“There’s really nothing you can do,” said the Knicks’ Gerald Wilkins, the man burned by both clutch shots.
“I mean, those were big plays. That’s Magic. The hook? I mean, c’mon. Then he comes back with the jumper. That’s the shot we wanted him to take. But he hits those, too.”
In an environment that is so basketball-hip, media-intensive and admiring--well, they are nice to him , anyway--Johnson cannot help but thrive. Was the pregame dressing room so crammed with press it looked like the Lakers would have to cut two players to fit the team in? Look at the bright side.
“I love it,” Johnson said, fairly cooing with delight. “It’s the best.
“You’ve got to love coming to New York to play. New Yorkers, they’re a different breed. They know basketball probably better than anybody. I mean, people on the street, everybody. This is the Mecca. It’s almost like you feel it originated here. Only problem I have, we only play here once a season.”
Actually, he has other problems--or his team has, even if you can’t see it in the standings. They have won 12 of 14, but they still don’t run like the old Lakers. Terry Teagle’s slow start and Larry Drew’s struggles make the bench a risk and result in Johnson and James Worthy carrying a heavy load.
“It’s always a concern when you’re playing guys heavy minutes,” Coach Mike Dunleavy said. “But for right now, I’ve got to win and then try to figure out something.
“Ideally, I’d like to play Earvin and James 35-36 minutes. I’m playing them 39 right now. It doesn’t sound like much. but it adds up.”
All things being relative, the Knicks would die for Dunleavy’s problems. New Coach John MacLeod started the night 3-3, but with victories over Miami, Minnesota and New Jersey. This was the test he’d been waiting for, and he was forced to take it without Maurice Cheeks, who went on the injured list with a bruised throat, and with Kiki Vandeweghe, Trent Tucker and Kenny Walker just limping off it.
The Lakers hit them with some brief, vintage fast-break basketball and ran up a 12-point lead in the second quarter. Things were so unpressured that Johnson tried only one shot in the first 22:30.
Things got tense in a hurry. The game turned into a half-court battle, Byron Scott got into foul trouble and the Lakers couldn’t find anyone else who could buy a jump shot. The Knicks went ahead in the third quarter, and after that, the teams were never farther than three points apart.
The lead changed 10 times in the last 15 minutes of the game. It changed for the last time with 2:18 left when Worthy hit a 15-footer over Charles Oakley. Worthy had been cold all third quarter, and the bigger Oakley backed off and let him shoot.
Said Worthy: “I could hear their bench yelling, ‘Play him tough, make him shoot over you.’ ”
Oakley did and Worthy did, too.
The Knicks cut the Laker lead to 94-93, but Johnson tossed his hook in over Wilkins. The Knicks cut it to 96-95, but Johnson cut behind a Worthy screen on a pick-and-roll and hit his 15-footer.
For good measure, Johnson then batted a pass out of bounds, forcing the Knicks to try to get off a tying three-pointer with six seconds left. Instead they panicked and threw the ball inside to Pat Ewing, who took a two-point shot and made it.
“Those last two shots, I knew I was gonna take ‘em,” Johnson said later. “It was just a matter of from where. I was gonna shoot ‘em, for sure.”
What the heck, if he can’t make them here, he can’t make them anywhere.
Magic Johnson, on the state of the Lakers: “We have great potential. We’re not even half-way there. We’ve been working on different things than the fast break. Our whole time in practice, we’ve worked on our half-court offense and our defense. Coach (Mike) Dunleavy watched our Phoenix series. He says we have to become a better executing team. You wait ‘til we put it (fast break) in. We’re going to be the team we want to be.”