This Magic moment was not like the last debut, when he ran into the arms of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to celebrate a buzzer-beating victory at San Diego, many years and one mini-dynasty ago.
Sunday night at the soldout Forum, Magic Johnson was wearing a dark pin-striped suit and running the show--not Showtime--from the sidelines. He was a coach, starting off his regime, however brief it might turn out to be.
He got a 110-101 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks for openers, propeled by a bygone atmosphere, a season-high 30 points from George Lynch and 19 rebounds and 18 points from Vlade Divac. He got some congratulatory handshakes walking off the court. Then, proving he is adjusting nicely to the new calling, he worried about the next game.
“I enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” Johnson said. “To see them play as hard as they played, that was enjoyable. No matter what happens, I’ll always remember this day.”
He enjoyed it?
“I haven’t seen this many happy people in Los Angeles in three years,” said one of them, Laker owner Jerry Buss.
“I think what you saw tonight was a lot of respect for a legend.”
Said Lynch: “It was great. It was something we had not felt all year. It was great the fans didn’t come in for Shaq. They came in to see the coach and the Lakers.”
The buildup for the game easily surpassed anything this season, probably reaching the level of the 1991 NBA finals.
Johnson was battling the same emotions by the afternoon, after showing up early at the shoot-around for some extra work with the rookies and then spending 45 minutes or so with the full squad.
“I was so excited and wound up that I had to go lift weights and run a couple of miles,” he said. “I tried to sleep a little bit, but I tossed and turned and dreamed about the game.”
He had talked with one former coach, Mike Dunleavy, his counterpart for the debut, Saturday night and then again Sunday. Another, Pat Riley, called about an hour before tipoff. All Johnson had to worry about by this point was the fact that he barely knew the offense--he told Nick Van Exel to call the plays on his own and for top assistant Bill Bertka to whisper in his ear what the Lakers were running.
As game time neared, the Lakers got a nice ovation when they came out for warm-ups, minus their coach. A video montage featuring Johnson and Larry Bird played on the scoreboard. Moments before tipoff, the coaches appeared and the familiar cheer of “Coooop!” filled the air to honor Michael Cooper’s move from the front office to the bench. Johnson was next.
If the Lakers wanted Showtime back, they got it.
“I Love L.A.” blared from the loudspeakers and Jeffrey Osborne sang the national anthem.
Photographers recorded the meeting with Dunleavy like a summit between world leaders, then backed off only slightly as players huddled around Johnson for final instructions. Only the ending was missing, one the Lakers hoped would fit the occasion. A couple of hours later, they had it, that and an undefeated coach.
The Lakers began the night 5 1/2 games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 16 to play. But the encouraging signs amid the long odds are that the teams still play twice more and the Nuggets’ schedule starting today is: Seattle twice, Phoenix twice, Utah, San Antonio, Houston, the Clippers and the Lakers in the next nine games. “Is there enough time?” Coach Magic Johnson said. “It’s going to be tough. They have to go on a hell of a losing streak and we have to go on a hell of a winning streak.”
Johnson has decided to keep Doug Christie, a point guard and small forward in one calendar year as a pro, at shooting guard. “I’m tired of switching him around,” Johnson said. “I think he’s confused.” This is good news to Christie, who has said all along that that is his natural position.
Sam Bowie conceded that he probably won’t return this season, adding that he had hoped to play for the new coach. “That’s a concern, it really is,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel as though I’ve got a few good years left in my career and I want to be realistic that, with the number of games we have left this season, I don’t want to jeopardize the rest of my career. I would like to get some time with Magic, though.” Bowie last played Dec. 21 and underwent arthroscopic surgery Jan. 5 to remove bone chips from his left knee.