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Johnson Remembers His Time as a Rookie

Times Staff Writer

Magic Johnson is getting special treatment this week. A 14-foot statue of Johnson will be unveiled during a public ceremony at Staples Center today at 5:15 p.m., and American Express is putting on a tribute for him Thursday night at the Shrine Auditorium.

But when Johnson joined the NBA in 1979, he was treated like a rookie, particularly by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“During training camp in Palm Springs, I had to go out and buy a Herald Examiner and an L.A. Times every morning and had to have them in front of Kareem’s room by 7:30,” Johnson said between his TNT stints at Universal Studios CityWalk on Monday night.

“During the season, I was in charge of carrying the projector and the ball bags, and I was always having to buy lunch for everyone at airports. I’d go get 20 hot dogs, then go back and get the drinks. They’d always tell me they’d pay me later, but not once was I ever reimbursed.”

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Trivia time: Johnson was the most valuable player of the All-Star games in 1990 and ’92. Who won the award in 1987, and what was Johnson’s role?

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More humility: Johnson recalls that during his first training camp, Chick Hearn told him he couldn’t beat the Lakers’ general manager and former coach, Bill Sharman, in a free-throw shooting contest.

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“I thought, ‘What, I can’t beat that old man?’ ” Johnson said.

So they squared off.

“I was feeling pretty good after I made 15 out of 20,” Johnson said. “Then Bill made 15 in a row, and I said, ‘Stop, I’ve seen enough.’ ”

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Negotiating snag: Johnson negotiated his first Laker contract with Jack Kent Cooke, who sold the team to Jerry Buss not long after that.

Of the negotiations, Johnson said, “Mr. Cooke said a number, I said a number, and we finally agreed on $400,000. Then I asked him to pay for me to continue my schooling at Michigan State, and he said no. So I told him I was just going to go back to school.

“But my father, who was there, took me aside and said, ‘I’ve worked my whole life, and I haven’t made anywhere close to $400,000. You’re gonna take that money.’ So I did.”

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Menu dispute: Johnson said those negotiations with Cooke took place over lunch at the Forum.

“Mr. Cooke had ordered sand dabs. I said, ‘What are sand dabs? I don’t eat sand dabs. Can I get a hamburger and fries?’

“He said, ‘Sand dabs are good for you. They’ll make you a better player.’ I said, ‘I think I’ve been doing OK eating hamburgers, pizza and chicken.’ ”

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Trivia answer: Tom Chambers of the Seattle SuperSonics, who scored 34 points in the West’s 154-149 overtime victory at Seattle. Johnson had told Chambers before the game he would get him the MVP award.

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And finally: Of the hazing he took as a rookie, Johnson said, “Not that I was cocky, but it was humbling and made me appreciate everything so much more later on. I don’t know exactly when it stopped, maybe 10 years ago. Now the players are pampered from day one, and that’s too bad.”

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Larry Stewart can be reached at larry.stewart@latimes.com.


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