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Magic’s Next Feat: Settle His Shoe Status : Marketing: If the Laker star splits from longtime sponsor Converse, rival shoemakers may try to score points.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Earvin (Magic) Johnson returns to the basketball court next month, not all eyes will be on his sleight of hand. Many will be on his flight of feet--specifically, his shoes.

No one will be watching more closely than executives from Reebok, Nike and L.A. Gear. Two months ago, Johnson said he wanted to split from longtime sponsor Converse. At the time, the issue seemed rather piddling since Johnson’s NBA playing days were supposedly over.

But on Thursday, Johnson signed a $14.6-million contract extension with the Lakers--believed to be the biggest single-season salary in team sports. In November, Johnson retired from the team, announcing that he had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus.

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So far, Converse--which pays him an estimated $2 million annually to wear its shoes--has refused to let him go.

But with Johnson’s shoe status still in limbo, every major athletic shoe maker knows one thing for sure: If his health holds up, Johnson will be the most widely watched NBA basketball player this season.

“It’s a powerful question: What shoes will Magic Johnson be wearing next season?” posed Alan Friedman, editor of Team Marketing. “Those are some high-profile feet to be shod.”

While some marketing experts expect Johnson to remain with Converse for the two-year duration of his contract, there is increasing speculation that Johnson will eventually end up with rival Reebok.

“If Magic were free, we certainly would like to sit down and talk with him,” said Roberto Muller, president of Reebok Sports Worldwide, who insists that he has had no contact with Johnson. “You’d have to develop a relationship that went well beyond a shoe deal--and beyond his playing days.”

Reebok’s stable of name athletes is generally regarded as a distant second to Nike’s assemblage of such superstars as Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson. For its part, Nike says it would also like to talk to Johnson.

“Magic is exactly the kind of player we are interested in,” said a senior Nike marketing executive who asked not to be named.

But in this case, the money isn’t on Nike.

“Reebok is the best bet,” said John Horan, publisher Sporting Goods Intelligence. “They’re into all that stuff like social responsibility and Amnesty International. They could really get behind this AIDS thing and run with it.”

Johnson was unavailable for comment. But his Los Angeles agent, Lon Rosen, said that conversations are still ongoing with Converse. “We’re in discussion to see if things can be fixed or ended,” Rosen said. Before Magic announced earlier this week he was returning to the Lakers, “we called (Converse) to let them know he’s coming back. We owe that to them.”

But that was hardly Johnson’s tone during the Olympic Games, when he blasted the sneaker maker that has had him under contract since 1979--the year he entered the NBA. “Converse is still living in the 1960s and ‘70s,” Johnson told the Associated Press at the time. “They haven’t arrived in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where advertising and marketing are the keys.”

Industry executives say Johnson is angry that Converse failed to make him the marketing darling that Nike has made of Michael Jordan.

“There is nothing memorable that Converse has ever done with Magic Johnson,” said Leonard Armato, a Los Angeles attorney whose firm, Management Plus Enterprises, represents basketball star Shaquille O’Neal of the Orlando Magic and retired Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “It only makes sense that his representative would seek recession of the agreement.”

That is precisely what Armato did four years ago, when he believed that Abdul-Jabbar was being poorly used by Adidas. Armato found a technical glitch in the agreement and got out of it. Abdul-Jabbar quickly signed with L.A. Gear.

L.A. Gear executives declined to comment on their interest, if any, in Johnson.

Converse, meanwhile, has little to say. Converse President Gib Ford declined to answer questions. But in a statement on Thursday he said, “We will review our future plans, taking (Johnson’s decision to return to the Lakers) into account.”

They Believe in Magic

These are Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s current product endorsement agreements. His largest endorsement agreement is with Converse, from which he earns about $2 million annually. That contract now runs through mid-1994.

Sponsor: Product

Converse Inc.: Athletic shoes

Nestle Inc.*: Candy

Upper Deck Authenticated Sports Memorabilia: Sports memorabilia

Miller Brewing Co.: AIDS education program

SkyBox International: Trading cards

Kraft Foods: Olympics promotion

Tiger Electronics: Hand-held computer game

Spalding: Basketball

Nintendo: Computer software

Pepsi-Cola**: Soft drinks

Cap Toys: Toys, games

Campo Frio (Spanish firm): Meat products

Random House: Book deal

* Nestle still has Johnson under contract but is not using him in any advertising.

** Johnson owns Pepsi distribution facility in Washington.


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