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Pinch Sharman, He Just Can’t Believe It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Sharman, the coach of the greatest Laker team ever, wandered down from his seat at halftime Tuesday night as if he were dancing.

Why? Because down below Magic Johnson was.

“It’s hard for me to believe what I’m seeing out there,” an emotional Sharman after Johnson’s stirring 10-point, five-assist first half performance. “It looks like he’s never left. It’s incredible that a person can be gone four-and-a-half years and come back and pick it up almost where he left off.”

Sharman, who coached the 1971-72 Lakers to the NBA’s best record ever (69-13) and currently serves a special consultant to the team, said he expected Johnson’s first game back from retirement to include all the usual stumbles and fumbles of a man who hadn’t played a regular-season game since 1991.

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Instead, as Johnson entered the game early in the first quarter as a power forward, then moved to post player, then to point guard, the Lakers went into a super-nova, spurred by an explosive Forum crowd.

Notice, Sharman said, how instinctively the other Lakers cut to the basket when Johnson had the ball, and how quickly he found them when they broke free. Notice how quickly everything turned to euphoria the moment Johnson came into the game.

“I’m astounded--it’s like it’s a whole different team out there,” Sharman said. “I don’t know about his NBA conditioning, but his passing, his timing, his shooting . . . it’s just amazing. When he’s in there, the whole team just seems to know what they’re doing.

“It feels like back in the ‘80s, during our playoff days. The thing with Magic, as we all say, he can play any position. And he did that tonight. He started at power forward, then pretty soon he was in the pivot and the low post, and in the second quarter he came back at the guard position. And he looked like any position, he’d been playing it his whole life.

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“What makes it so nice as a coach, if he doesn’t start him, they go out there and if something’s not clicking, if he needs help at any position, it’ll be, ‘Magic, take care of that position.’ ”

Though Sharman cautioned that the Lakers and Johnson still had to keep the charge going over the long haul--and that it was only one part of one game--Sharman said that Johnson’s dynamic, dramatic return clearly reshapes the playoff race.

With about a half-season to go, the Lakers have plenty of time to get used to playing with Johnson by the time the postseason begins and possible matchups against the Seattle Supersonics or others develop, Sharman said.

“If he can stay healthy, it’s already obvious he makes the team better,” Sharman said. “I’d have to feel if he can stay healthy and the the key players can stay healthy, I think we’ve got to be considered a strong contender for our conference.

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“Chicago, I’d have to say they’re above any team in the league. But who knows, if we could get there . . . “

Interestingly, of course, the Lakers’ next game is Friday, when the 39-3 Bulls, gunning to be the first team to get 70 victories, come to the Forum, with a flying former retiree of their own.

“I was sitting up there and thinking that even Michael Jordan, who most people consider maybe the best player ever, when he came back last year, he wasn’t the same Michael Jordan as when he left,” Sharman said.

“I mean, he kind of struggled a little bit last year. And he was only 30 or 31 last year. Magic is 36. And he’s been away four-and-a-half years, where Michael Jordan was gone one year.”

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