For Magic Johnson, the Path Is Clear

WASHINGTON POST

In the owner's box at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood with his new good friend Bruce McNall, to watch McNall's Los Angeles Kings play hockey, Earvin Johnson started talking business. He does so frequently these days.

"We were just talking," Johnson said. "We talked about how he got into the football team," the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts, which McNall and Wayne Gretzky purchased. "Then we mutually agreed that if there was anything he's got that he could help me with, he would like to see it. And if there was anything he had that I would like to invest in.

"He said, 'Well, I've got this horse racing in the Preakness.' "

And last week, Earvin Johnson -- "Magic" only comes out on the hardwood -- pulled out his checkbook and bought 25 percent of Honor Grades, by Danzig and out of Weekend Suprise, and kin to Northern Dancer, Summer Squall and Secretariat. Honor Grades will be racing at Pimlico in Baltimore Saturday.

Johnson will not be there to watch.

Though he will sacrifice almost anything to win yet another league championship and a ring to match the five he already owns, Earvin Johnson insists that his Big Picture will not involve greeting customers at casinos or the When I Was Playing lecture circuit.

He will own a basketball team. This is no longer an if. He's already discussed it with NBA Commissioner David Stern. Not that they've got any specific teams in mind, but Johnson has made it quite clear he wants to run a team from someplace other than the playing floor.

"I'm at about 75 percent of where I want to be," he said. "I'm probably more far along than I thought I would be at this point. When you talk about a team, there's a lot of guys that want to get with me as far as money. Money's not going to be the problem. It's what teams are going to be available."

Paul Allen paid an estimated $75 million for the Portland Trail Blazers a few years ago. With the new NBA television contracts, the going rate for a premier team could well be near $100 million.

This number is mentioned to Johnson.

"If I was out of the league tomorrow, I'd have $100 million," he said. "I wouldn't worry about that."

He clarifies that a minute later. He wouldn't have all the money himself -- only $50 million. The rest would come from other investors. Nonetheless, it is a breathtaking statement in an age when many athletes will be partaking of the league's new pre-pension plan out of necessity rather than choice when they retire.

"We probably get 500 offers a month," says Los Angeles-based Lon Rosen, one member of Johnson's financial team. "It's real hard to know what's legitimate and what's not. You try to look through all of them. People offer you anything. But he's very conservative. This (horse) is the riskiest thing he's ever done. But it's a calculated risk. Bruce has had a lot of success in this field."

David Rossen of McNall's Summa Stable said Johnson and colleagues "really didn't ask too many technical questions. They purchased Bruce McNall's success."

"I don't know anything about horses," Johnson admitted.

What he knows about is winning at basketball and making money.

He is 31, but his basketball skills have not abated much. The Lakers don't run nearly as much as they used to, because they don't have the young legs anymore. What they do have is bookend forwards in James Worthy and Sam Perkins, who take turns posting up smaller and slower guys.

And when they go out of the low post, Johnson goes in. Opponents still haven't found a 6-foot-9 point guard who can take him on. There still is no answer for when he turns over his left shoulder and demands the lane for a short hook.

"You don't guard Magic," said Golden State's Chris Mullin, who has tried.

Perkins, Terry Teagle and Coach Mike Dunleavy have given the Lakers an injection of new bodies and new thoughts to go with "Showtime," the name the Lakers gave to their fast-break style of play during their success with Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s.

"It's still 'Showtime,' " Johnson said. "It's just a different way. We still get our breaks, our dunks. We just don't get them all the time. We used to rely on that."

Johnson's basketball legacy is already such that when NBA people argue about the best point guards in the league, invariably they begin the discussion with "Magic doesn't count." He broke Oscar Robertson's all-time assists record this season.

But even if the prospect of playing in his eighth finals in 13 years wasn't there, Johnson would have a full plate. There are myriad endorsements for products ranging from Converse shoes to NBA Authentics athletic clothing.

Magic will not become a coach.

"It would be hard for me to be a good coach," he said, "because I know what I want and if a guy couldn't give it to me I'd be all over him. I'd be a good teacher. I know the game and I could show things to guys."

What he sees is players coming out of college who aren't as astute as some of his NBA brethren.

"Take a guy like Chris," he says of Mullin. "They know how to play. There's a lot of things we all can't do, but we compensate because we know how to play the game. We're slow or whatever, but we know when to be fast. They think (today) it's all athletic ability. ...

"That's Michael (Jordan). And there's only one guy out there doing that. I have 450 kids (in a basketball camp) and I tell them, 'I don't see any Michaels out there. You guys ever see Doctor J? He's not here. So you better learn how to play. You better learn how to box out.' "

Johnson is already the all-time playoff leader in assists (2,170), steals (343) and just passed John Havlicek in games (174).

But the chances are dwindling. He winces when he sees his friends Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird trying desperately to get back to where they've been, when their bodies rebel.

It's the competition. That's why he's won so much as a player, and wants to move so quickly into becoming an owner.

"When I'm out," Johnson said, "I don't want to wait five years (to buy a team). I want to get right with it."

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