Earvin Johnson Jr. comes dribbling up the floor, cleverly keeping the ball away from a hounding defender. That's Earvin—not Irvin or Irving or Elvin or Elvis. Earvin Johnson, the hot prospect from Lansing, Mich. Zap! The ball has disappeared from his hands and materialized in the grasp of a Michigan State teammate under the hoop. Two points.
Here he is again at the top of the key, looking one way and flinging the ball another—to a streaking teammate one step ahead of his man. Two more points.
Hey, wait a minute. The program says this magician is 6'8", 200 pounds. Can it be that Michigan State has a 6'8" freshman bringing the ball up court and playing point guard most of the time? Oops, here he comes again. He pauses briefly in the vicinity of the free-throw line, and then, zip! drives down the middle, gives a dipsy-doodle, herky-jerky Dr. J move and lays it in. Another two points.
Sure enough, Michigan State has a multitalented newcomer who passes, scores, rebounds, dribbles and, as if to assure the world that nobody is perfect, admits that he has heard rumors of a thing called defense but is not quite sure what it is. Never mind. The Spartans play a zone to hide Johnson's and other players' deficiencies, and figure that by scoring a healthy number of points of their own, everything will work out okay. It seems to be. With a 12-1 record after last weekend, they are threatening to break into the Top Ten.
January 23, 1978
Michigan State had a 10-17 record last year under first-year Coach Jud Heath-cote. There are some talented athletes back from that team, notably junior Forward Greg Kelser (Michigan State's leading scorer and rebounder in 1976-77) and Guard Robert Chapman (a fifth-round NBA draft choice who decided to stay in school), but Johnson is the catalyst that was desperately needed. He and another 6'8" Lansing resident, freshman Center Jay Vincent, have suddenly turned a loser into the favorite for the Big Ten title. At the end of last week, State was the only team unbeaten in conference play.
The class of '81 is an exceptional one all across the country, and so far it seems that Johnson is its brightest member, even though others, notably Maryland's Albert King and Duke's Eugene Banks, were more highly publicized as high school seniors. In fact, Johnson, Vincent, Banks, King, USC's Cliff Robinson, Ohio State's Herb Williams and Iona's Jeff Ruland have the potential to become the finest class ever, surpassing the Jerry West-Oscar Robertson group of '60 and the Pete Maravich-Calvin Murphy-Rick Mount-Bob Lanier class of '70.
Johnson's statistics are startling, although even they do not fully convey the all-round quality of his game. Against Minnesota he scored 31 points and had eight rebounds, four assists and 13 of 15 from the foul line. Two nights later against Wisconsin he had 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Bingo, right out of the blocks, he was Player of the Week in the conference. Last Thursday night at Illinois, in his first Big Ten road game, Johnson had 17 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and four steals, which compared very favorably with his best previous line, against Wichita State: 20 rebounds, 19 points, nine assists.
Johnson, who grew up only a few miles from the huge Michigan State campus, is the son of a Fisher Body worker who emigrated from Mississippi to find a better job. His mother is from North Carolina, where she was a good basketball player. Earvin used to get up early on Sunday mornings, go to Lansing's Main Street School and play full-court one-on-one games against his older brother Larry. He had to learn to dribble, he says, because Larry pressed him baseline-to-baseline all the time.
In about the fourth grade he began encountering Vincent on the playgrounds. When it came time to go to high school, Vincent went to Eastern, while Johnson was bused—initially to his displeasure—to mostly white Everett, which he led to the state Class A quarterfinals as a sophomore, the semis as a junior and the championship as a senior. In one high school game he scored 54 points; in his next he had 16 assists.
If Johnson had not been around, Vincent probably would have been considered the best player in Lansing's history. The two became close friends despite the rivalry, and together they turned a city that had been noted chiefly for the production of Oldsmobiles into a Mecca for college scouts. Vincent chose Michigan State right away, but Johnson waited to decide until after a slew of All-Star games and a trip to Germany to play for the U.S. team in the Albert Schweitzer Games. Before he departed for Europe, he narrowed his potential choice to either Michigan or Michigan State.
When Johnson got off the plane that brought him home from Germany, he was greeted by a bifurcated crowd, one side waving a Wolverine banner, the other displaying a Spartan emblem. Most Lansing fans were voluble about wanting Johnson to stay home so they could continue to watch him play. (Apparently his sister Evelyn, an All-Stater at Everett last year as a junior, was not enough for the fans.)
His announcement in favor of State was a triumphant moment for Heathcote, who had been an assistant at remote Washington State and head man at remoter Montana. At those schools, it had been a recruiting coup just to get a topflight prospect to visit.
The box office opened the day after Johnson's decision; in two hours 100 season tickets had been sold, and State's 9,886-seat Jenison Field House was subsequently sold out in advance for the first time.
"Michigan thought it had a lot more to offer than Michigan State, which it did," says Johnson. "The Wolverines were on national TV and this and that. But I like the underdog school. I have always been the underdog. Every team I've played on was not supposed to win. Even when I go to the playground, I don't pick none of the best players. I pick the players who want to work hard."
Johnson, who is irrepressibly cheerful, earned a 3.4 average in his first semester at Michigan State, but he admits he must improve his English if he is to fulfill his goal of going into television announcing. Heathcote would just as soon Johnson improved his defense and outside shooting—not that the coach is complaining, mind you.
Despite those two less-than-glaring deficiencies, Johnson has already been named the most valuable player in two tournaments, and rival coaches are touting him as the greatest thing to happen to basketball since cages around the courts were discontinued in 1929.
Illinois' Lou Henson says, "He's great. I haven't seen a 6'8" freshman who can do the things he can do."
Dave Gaines of Detroit, whose lone loss was to the Spartans, says, "Johnson scored only 11 points against us, but he had something like 13 assists. He's a well-liked kid and the player Michigan State needed to get its program started again."
Johnson is not only gifted and unselfish, he is also charismatic. He enjoys playing, and that joy is transmitted to the crowd. He could become the Big Ten's best drawing card since Mount was at Purdue. "I'm not surprised at anything he does, because—like his nickname—he's 'Magic,' " says high school rival Kevin Smith, now a freshman at Detroit. "There is no question that he's a special person. He draws people to him like a magnet."
If plaudits of this sort keep rolling in, even the player named Erving may have to take notice of the newcomer who spells it Earvin.