THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Will Coach Magic Have Sweet 16?

I nterim?

You have to hand it to the Lakers, they still know how to throw a news conference.

Everyone else makes an announcement. With the purple and gold, you get surprises.

This one didn't quite match the '81 classic, at which Jerry Buss fired Paul Westhead, who had won five games in a row, and tried to hire Jerry West, who lateraled the job to Pat Riley right in front of everybody, after which Riley won them four titles.

But it wasn't exactly routine, either.

Interim? Magic Johnson's news conference drew the biggest crowd the Lakers had seen since . . . uh . . . his last news conference.

The aerials on the minicam trucks looked like a forest in the parking lot. Tickets for Johnson's debut were flying out; more than 1,000 were sold by the end of the news conference on walk-ups at the Forum.

The franchise was like a light bulb that had been off for two years and was suddenly switched back on.

Now for the surprise . . .

Interim? Yes, Buss asked, and Johnson agreed that he would coach the Lakers only for the last 16 games of the season.

Each side had its reasons for putting off a real commitment, though neither was talking about them.

The Lakers want to see if Johnson is serious, as opposed to taking a walk on them as he did when he called off his 1992 comeback.

Johnson wants a piece of an NBA franchise. Buss has politely but steadfastly refused suggestions he sell him part of this one. The last time it came up, Buss' spokesman, Bob Steiner, noted wryly that the owner had always said he would leave the team to his children and, while he considered Johnson a surrogate son, that didn't count.

Things simply changed.

The rabbit pulled a magician out of a hat.

Having brought Johnson back to relight the lights, Buss has little choice but to keep him or face a new night, darker than the franchise has ever seen.

By all accounts, this was Buss' sole initiative and he did it for better reasons than a 33% drop in attendance in two years. Today's boomlet will end soon enough and the reasons will still be there.

Johnson is a terrific coaching prospect. It's a people job, he's a people genius, someone who can air a player out--yoo hoo, Vlade Divac--without the player minding.

Players will hustle for him as they never did for Randy Pfund, who had neither Johnson's presence nor Johnson's name. Pfund was on a tightrope, besides, and his rascals knew it.

The Lakers might attract better free agents with Johnson.

He won't fall on his face. How bad can anyone look taking over a 28-38 team?

He will love it. He loves the game and lives for challenges. This is challenge enough for a decade.

He is ideal for Buss, who has complete confidence in him. Although it hasn't sunk in yet, rebuilding requires patience. Johnson will be allowed to struggle, a license Pfund wasn't granted. Buss has been a model owner who pays generously and trusts his professionals. However, the franchise's fall, predictable as the sunset when Johnson retired, has left him in a state of denial.

Why would he want to fire his rookie coach last spring after trading the team's most dependable player--Sam Perkins--for a prospect plus Benoit Benjamin?

The Lakers faced hard times then and still do, with Johnson, John Wooden, Rick Pitino or whomever.

In the NBA, players make programs and superstars make dynasties. If Riley had inherited Divac and Nick Van Exel rather than Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he might still be on the radio next to Chick Hearn.

There's a difference between players and prospects. The Lakers have more of the latter.

Divac has become a top-10 center.

Van Exel is a find.

George Lynch is undersized, but talented.

Anthony Peeler remains a prospect, but with a question mark: What happened this season?

Doug Christie is their best prospect, but his flame was allowed to flicker after the All-Star break as Pfund, fighting for his job, played veterans.

The Lakers are planning a shopping expedition, but face furious competition for Danny Manning and Horace Grant. The other free agents are older players, such as Buck Williams and Michael Cage, helpful for a contender, but no one for a young team to build around.

The Lakers have high hopes for their first lottery pick--the second-to-last lottery pick at the pace they are on. They are 125-1 for Glenn Robinson.

This draft falls off a cliff after the first four--Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Donyell Marshall. At No. 10, the Lakers are back in undersized-forward country.

It would shake a normal man, but Johnson's optimism is the stuff of legends.

It really is a job for a Magic man. Luckily, there was one available.

RANDY PFUND: MAY 18, 1992-MARCH 23, 1994

Two words describe his tenure as Laker coach:

Human sacrifice.

Pfund wasn't a natural. He had things to learn, but he was tireless and devoted to a fault. He chose the Laker job and all the pressure that went with it over an offer from the Sacramento Kings, whose goals are more modest.

It wasn't even a choice for him. He was a Laker, period.

Buss never understood Pfund's problems, nor was he interested in understanding them. Buss simply wanted things the way they used to be.

Pfund did get one of those Buss scholarships, an extra year tacked on to his contract when they already knew he was gone, which means the Lakers still owe him another $900,000 or so. He earned it with his devotion and, when it was no longer required, his grace.

When Pfund got the bad news, he thanked Buss and West for the opportunity. At $900,000, he was a bargain.

HUMAN HIGHLIGHT FILM: COMING?

While he lasts, Dominique Wilkins is the best thing that ever happened to the Clippers.

Imagine, after years of having players throw their money in their face, here is a bona fide superstar who acts as if he wants to be here and says he will talk others--such as Ron Harper--into staying, too.

Of course, business is also business.

Thus it can't be too surprising that Wilkins' agent said last week that they will test the free-agent market. But when ESPN reported that he was interested in the Lakers, they couldn't have been whooping it up at the Sports Arena.

Leverage is anywhere you can find it, but the facts suggest that Wilkins will finish his career as a Clipper.

The Clippers can pay him that $6-7 million a year he's asking for. Anyone else would have to clear that much room under the salary cap, a prodigious task.

The Clippers can give him a multiyear contract. No one else can sign him for more than a year; he is about to turn 35.

If Wilkins wants to be a Laker badly enough to accept $1.75 million--the most they could pay him--on the assumption he will have enough left in a year to merit a $6-million contract, he's one high-rolling dude.

FACES AND FIGURES

Welcome home: Former Hornet Kendall Gill, playing his first game in Charlotte since forcing his trade to Seattle, was booed every time he touched the ball, elbowed by former teammate Larry Johnson and got into an argument with his former coach, Alan Bristow. Gill then proceeded to score 22 points, 10 in the last five minutes, as the SuperSonics beat the Hornets. . . . The Johnson-Gill feud started when Gill threw a party without specifically inviting Johnson. Johnson then threw a party, making sure not to invite Gill.

After last week's game, Johnson waited by the court for Gill, who was doing a postgame radio show. Hornet assistant T.R. Dunn dragged Johnson back to the dressing room before he could start real trouble. "LJ wanted a piece of him," teammate Hersey Hawkins said. "Luckily, they didn't meet in the tunnel. It saved them both a lot of money."

The Mighty Quinn Chronicles, continued: In their recent game at the Sports Arena, Dallas players had to break up two fights between Coach Quinn Buckner and Jim Jackson, the one prominent Maverick Buckner hadn't previously angered. Last week Buckner fined forward Terry Davis $500 for second-guessing his substitutions in the newspaper. Buckner sent him a letter informing him of it, whereupon Davis told Buckner--in the newspaper--to "be a man."

How to rebuild--not: You're supposed to trade your veterans for young prospects, lose games and fall into the lottery, but the Detroit Piston stars, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, are staying where they are, Thomas to run the team, Dumars because he doesn't want to be traded. "I'm the one who has to adjust to a trade," Dumars said, "and I don't want to."

Former Piston Olden Polynice helped break up the fight early in the season between guard Alvin Robertson and Billy McKinney, Piston director of personnel. Polynice recently was upset that McKinney had traded him to Sacramento, made him fly back when the deal was canceled, then traded him back to Sacramento. Said Polynice: "Maybe we should have let Alvin strangle him."

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