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Merely Mortal Magic

Magic Johnson was practicing his set shots. Once these might have been “jumpers.” Johnson, however, is 36 years old. This is an age when basketball players start to find their feet stuck to the floor. It can baffle them at first. They feel like soaring, just like before. Their brain sends down all the old signals: Jump. Leap. Skyward, ho. Maddeningly, the joints below just yawn and creak and, in the end, fail to answer the call.

Clank.

Johnson’s first shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.

He shrugged, kept shooting.

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Swish.

Clank.

Swish.

Clank.

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Clank.

This was Monday. The Los Angeles Lakers were winding up practice at Loyola Marymount. Johnson had moved to a basket away from the others. He worked his way around the court, throwing up shot after shot from just inside the three-point line. An old teammate, Larry Drew, rebounded and tossed the ball back. A couple dozen reporters and students peeked down from the balcony. Johnson at first missed more than he made, and then: Swish, swish, swish. Nine in a row . . . he’s got it back, the balcony crowd murmured . . . followed by three straight clankers . . . no, he doesn’t.

On the other side of the gym doors, enough reporters and photographers to cover a small war waited for Johnson to finish his workout and announce his return to the game. He seemed to be in no great rush. He kept working on his shots, experimenting with the angle of his elbow, the form of his follow-through.

This was a man patiently in search of something. If it was the old Magic, it would be a long hunt. What Magic was before can never be again, just as the enchanting spells he and his teammates cast on Los Angeles in those magical 1980s can never be again. That was then. This is now. It is something not only basketball legends, but every weekend warrior on the backside of 30 eventually must face. Make concessions or give up the game. Learn to play with your feet plastered to the ground. Lean on trick shots. Trust that youth’s raw and natural talent can be trumped by low cunning, by pace.

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Now Johnson moved in close to the basket and started shooting hooks. Rays of sunlight slanted through the gym windows, capturing Johnson as he swung toward the basket again and again.

Pivot right: Swish.

Drop set left: Clank.

Right hand: Swish.

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Left hand: Clank.

In a few minutes he would make it official: On Tuesday night he would suit up, a Laker again. Johnson still has the virus, but it no longer has him. The press conference would last nearly an hour. Many of the questions were gilded with lofty presumptions, talk of championships and records and even of Johnson’s ability to re-spark an entire city. The answers were about age and mortality.

He had lost “five steps,” Johnson would say. This was no longer “Showtime,” but “the late show.” No longer would he dominate entire games every night. Now he must learn to pick his spots, come off the bench, plug holes: “When you are a basketball player,” he would say, “you can fit in anywhere.” He sounded almost apologetic as he sought to lower expectations. It was unnecessary.

In sports, the most interesting performers often are faded superstars who can no longer rely simply on athletic talent and youthful energy. Only after they are stripped of their natural ability--so unfathomable to us earthbound hacks--can they reveal what set them apart in the first place: heart and intelligence. Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a tremendous player in his prime, boringly unstoppable. He was more fun to watch in his final years, throwing sharp little passes, boxing out rebounders night after night. The same was true of Joe Montana in his epilogue as a Kansas City Chief; without a championship team around him, without arm strength and foot speed, he could demonstrate in distilled form his intelligence for the game and courage.

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And so, I suspect, it will go with Johnson. This is being written Tuesday afternoon, before his re-debut. Now maybe he stored enough magic to make a dazzling return, maybe not. It won’t matter. Down the line, his game can never be quite so magical as it was before. It will be more, well, human. And this, strangely enough, will make it more dramatic, more fascinating, than the earlier years before mortality found him.

Clank.

Clank.

Swish.

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He ended with free throws. Most of the other Lakers had started to move toward the door. Johnson kept shooting, looking. Clank. Only a slight shake of his head betrayed his frustration. He shot again. It rattled around and finally rolled in. Good enough. Earvin Johnson adjusted his knee pad and went out to announce his comeback.


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