This Decision Was Beyond Coin Flip


Magic Johnson would have returned to Michigan State rather than play for the Chicago Bulls.

“I’d have stayed in school,” he said here Tuesday, standing alone outside Gate 3 1/2 of Chicago Stadium, the house that could have been his. “A coin toss changed the course of my whole life.”

Chicago called heads in a 1979 coin flip with Los Angeles for the No. 1 pick in the NBA college draft. It came up tails.


Johnson signed with the Lakers after his sophomore year of college and proceeded to win five championships. The Bulls picked second, took UCLA’s David Greenwood and have won no championships.

“I wouldn’t have played here,” Johnson said on the eve of Game 2 of the NBA finals between his team and the team that could have been his. “The only reason I came out was to play with Kareem and the Lakers.

“The next year, I think the first pick belonged to Utah. I could have ended up Utah’s Earvin (Magic) Johnson. How does that sound?”

Pretty good--in Utah.

Actually, it could have been Golden State’s Earvin (Magic) Johnson, because the Warriors went first in the 1980 draft, eventually settling for the somewhat less than magical Joe Barry Carroll. Utah, picking second, took Darrell Griffith.

Magic also could have gone to school a fourth year, then taken pot luck. Top pick in 1981’s draft belonged to Dallas, which took Mark Aguirre over Isiah Thomas.

Memories are made of this. What might the Mavericks have been with Magic or even Isiah? Or how does Houston’s Michael (Air) Jordan sound? The Rockets bypassed Jordan in the draft because they adored local hero Akeem Olajuwon. Then Portland passed up Jordan, too, preferring the taller Sam Bowie. Talk about changing the course of lives.

For that matter, Chicago might not even have been in a position to pick Jordan had it spurned Greenwood in 1979 in favor of eventual all-pro Sidney Moncrief, as was one of General Manager Rod Thorn’s options at the time.

Nostalgia was the mood du jour Tuesday as Magic Johnson pondered past, present and future.

He spoke rather bluntly about his rookie season with the Lakers, saying, “No other guy could have come onto that team and fed all those egos. I had to make certain sacrifices to keep them all happy.”

He spoke rather wistfully about his final season with the Lakers, whenever that will be, saying, “I might just jump up sooner than you think and say: ‘That’s enough.’ I’m not going to play just for the money or just to hang around. I don’t want to be a piece of the puzzle. I want to be the puzzle.”

He spoke rather whimsically about life beyond the Lakers, saying: “Will I worry about the Lakers after I’m gone? No. The only way I’d worry about that team is if I own that team.”

Any regrets? “One,” Magic said. “The (Paul) Westhead thing. Because it was untrue.”

The firing of Westhead and subsequent hiring of Pat Riley as Laker coach became the one great controversy of Johnson’s career, partially because it was portrayed as a virtual ultimatum on his part that Westhead be dismissed. It upsets him that this story has since been accepted as gospel.

In this same vein, it would be easy, though not necessarily fair, to jump to conclusions about Riley for anyone reading between the lines when Johnson discusses his current coach.

Of Mike Dunleavy, Magic said Tuesday: “He was fresh, enjoyable. He knows how to pull strings the right way. He can get on your case, but he also knows how to say: ‘Good job.’ He distinguishes well between being your coach and, like, your friend.

“Mike has a nice relationship with 12 separate individuals instead of just with a team. When he makes a move, he comes up and tells you to your face. With A.C. Green going to the bench, he sat down and discussed it. Instead of just drastically making a move, he discusses it with you, tells you why he’s thinking of doing it.”

There is a certain protocol that Magic Johnson appreciates, one that comes with distinguished achievement and status. Someday, the Lakers will give him a Rolls-Royce or a rocking chair, the way they did Abdul-Jabbar. Until then, he doesn’t wish to be the coach’s second-guesser, but he doesn’t object to being the coach’s second opinion.

A Chicago Bull, though, he never cared to be.

On the 13th floor of their Michigan Avenue office building, the Bulls were represented that 1979 day by Thorn and managing partner Jon Kovler, who owned the team with a mostly absentee group that included George Steinbrenner and Lamar Hunt. A poll of Chicago’s fans conducted by the team resulted in a slight consensus that when the coin was flipped, the Bulls call heads.

Thorn wanted to call tails.

On the speaker phone from New York, Commissioner Lawrence O’Brien asked if either team cared to make the call. If both did, O’Brien would have to flip a coin to see who would call the coin flip.

Since Chicago’s fans had been heard from, Thorn asked, could he make the call?

Chick Hearn, representing the Lakers on the phone, said that was OK with L.A.

“OK, gentlemen, here we go,” boomed the deep voice of O’Brien. “The coin’s in the air . . . “

How the Lakers heard first, the Bulls weren’t sure, but the next sound they heard was cheering from L.A. Thorn’s chest sagged and his head nearly hit the desk.

Johnny (Red) Kerr, broadcaster and former coach of the Bulls, recalled losing a coin flip with Milwaukee for the rights to draft Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA’s Lew Alcindor) back when Kerr was coaching Phoenix. The Suns, too, had polled their fans.

“The moral of the story,” Kerr told Thorn, “is if you listen to the fans, you end up sitting next to them.”

The Bulls believe they could have persuaded Johnson to play for them. But then, they never would have had Jordan.

Nice little irony there.

“How about if I end up owning the Bulls?” Magic asked. “Now there would be the ultimate irony.”