Earvin Johnson, the Michigan State Magic Man whose exuberance and sleight-of-hand did so much to make college basketball particularly enjoyable last season, was lying on the floor of his East Lansing apartment, wiggling his toes in the green shag carpeting and pondering where he will play next year—the Big Ten, Moscow or the NBA. Here he was enjoying himself so much—and the pros were strongly urging that he get down to business. "Funny, isn't it?" he said.
The problem is that the 19-year-old sophomore with the omnipresent smile feels that everything is perfect in his life right now. Therefore, all things considered, he might just as well play college basketball for two more years and keep discoing down at The Bus Stop, playing pool at the student union, drinking strawberry daiquiris and buying records at the Lansing Mall. Is there any state that is better than perfect?
The pros think so. Thus, Magic's dilemma: dollars vs. Olympic gold and the possibility of a college degree.
On one side are the professionals, armed with money, an old weapon that has worked well over the years. Johnson's price tag is still facedown, but the realistic estimates of those closest to him see numbers like $500,000 a year for five years. That figure would put him among the top 10 pro players. One general manager says $300,000 a year for five would be more realistic, but that probably won't wash in Magic's mind because he turned down $250,000 a year for six years from Kansas City in 1978 and he'll likely consider a $50,000-a-year boost insultingly small. A $2 million, five-year offer might hook him, however. Teammate Greg Kelser, who completed his eligibility this year and will be a high first-round draft pick himself, says, "If I was in Johnson's place, I might leave."
April 29, 1979
All of which has East Lansing in an uproar only a few decibels lower than that of the celebration accompanying State's victory in last month's NCAA championship. An East Lansing motel marquee says, "If you believe in Magic, welcome." Superfan Duane Vernon hyperbolizes, "Every member of the team is a hero, but Magic is a legend." At the least Johnson is a walking mob scene, an autograph party gone berserk. These are heady days, for at last, at last, long-suffering Spartans have something really good in which to rub the noses of those snooty winners at the University of Michigan. More than anyone, Johnson understands all this; he loves all this. But no later than May 11 he must decide if he will forego Michigan State, declare himself a hardship case and thereby become eligible for the pro draft, which will be held June 25.
There is talk—mostly from the optimists—that Johnson will stay at State for one more year. Then he could go hardship in the spring of 1980, play on the U.S. basketball team in the Moscow Olympics—unless there is an adverse ruling by international Olympic officials—and then join the NBA team that drafted him. Reason and logic, however, leave little doubt that he will turn pro. And that, according to Johnson watchers, may mean that he won't. "Earvin thrives on intrigue," says Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote.
There are only three people directly involved in making the decision. One is Charles Tucker, a psychologist for the East Lansing school district who had try-outs with a couple of ABA teams. Tucker has known Earvin for years, and he says, "Opportunity comes once, and you can throw it away so fast. But if Earvin only cared about money, he'd have been gone last year." Tucker insists he wants none of Earvin's cash.
Then there is Magic's father, Earvin Sr. He makes $20,000 a year as a night relief worker in an Oldsmobile body plant, plus several thousand more hauling trash and working as a janitor. Mrs. Johnson brings home another $10,000 from her job as a junior high school cafeteria worker. Their 10 kids take it all and a little bit more. Yet, Earvin Sr. assesses his son's situation by saying, "If he gets the right offer, he'll go pro this year. I'd say $500,000 a year for four years. Wouldn't you say that's about right? At least that much. He may not be any good, but he'll sure bring excitement."
And then there's Earvin Jr., who says, "I don't need a lot of opinions. I can listen to myself."
There is a definite feeling that of the three, Earvin Sr. is the key. After all, when Magic was deciding which university to attend, he leaned toward Michigan; the old man wanted Michigan State. When Magic wanted to go for the pro bucks last year, his father led the opposition. So these days, when Earvin Sr. says, "I think that he's as ready as he'll ever be to play pro ball," his utterances get respect and special attention.
A growing number of people think Earvin really has no choice. His coach at Lansing's Everett High, George Fox, says, "You cannot in good conscience advise him to turn down millions. Anyone who does is selfish and is not looking out for Earvin's best interests."
The pros could use a Magic potion. Pat Williams, the 76ers' general manager, says, "I think at least half of his appeal is his enthusiasm. But you have to remember that happiness and glow and joy often turn to dust in our league." When Earvin plays, he absolutely lights up the sky, and there are those who wonder how that will go over with the too cool pros. Says Magic, "It's impossible to play hard for 82 games. But I bet I can play hard in at least 70." In addition, Tucker says that a lot of teams self-destruct because of personality problems, and Earvin "ain't never going to cause no problems." Probably not. Last year, for example, he had 269 assists. Once the pros get used to the idea that they may—surprise!—get a pass when they're open under the basket, nobody will grumble.
Those opposed to Johnson's turning pro are the people of Michigan in general, East Lansing in particular and Spartan fanatics in desperation. They are armed with love, an old weapon that has worked well over the years. Duane Vernon, whose bar at home is S-shaped, says, "What does Earvin mean to us? My God, what did Eisenhower mean to the soldiers?" Pete Secchia, a big booster from Grand Rapids, raised $1,200 for a full-page ad in the Michigan State News, in which he pleaded with Earvin to stay at State. Secchia's ad said, "We've...learned in the marketplace of life that a college degree...will be with you always." Teammate Jay Vincent says, "College basketball is fun. What's better than that? I don't think he should go pro and I don't think he will."
Last weekend Earvin slipped off to Philadelphia to watch the NBA playoffs and also to consult about his future with Julius Erving. It was Erving who last year impressed upon Johnson the importance of learning to shoot bank shots, a technique that has improved Magic's game substantially. "The Doctor called the other day," says Johnson, "and I told him I wanted to come see him."
Magic's Philadelphia excursion pinpoints a crucial problem: how does Earvin—the same Earvin who only a few years ago was rolling up socks into pretend basketballs, shooting them at imaginary baskets at his home and catching the devil for it from his mother—make a sensible, adult decision?
The phone rings in his apartment.
"Donna?" says Earvin. "Donna who?
"Excuse me," says Earvin, hanging up the phone. "I guess I decide by thinking that, well, my dream...." Phone rings.
"Renee? Renee who?
"Excuse me. My dream is to play in the NBA and...." Phone rings.
"Lisa? Lisa who?
"Excuse me. Money plays a big part. All that money." Phone rings.
"Joan? Joan who?" Johnson unplugs the phone.
The phone. Its incessant ringing is proof of a superstar in residence. "Not as many girls call me," says Andy Wells, Johnson's roommate in the $255-a-month apartment, "but I'm still doing O.K." Girls, and a whole lot of other people with less frivolous purposes, call. "You have to deal with it," shrugs Johnson. But oddly, Magic doesn't seem that bothered by the big decision. "When it's time, I'll say," says Johnson. Earvin's mother, Christine, says, "He's just silent about it. Real quiet. Then one day, boom, he'll tell us."
"You have to be careful," Tucker tells Johnson, "because short-term gratification can bring on long-term pain. Don't trust anyone."
Less weight is given to non-money arguments, but with Earvin, any of them might carry the day for Spartan believers. His mother wants him to stay in school; he didn't become Player of the Year (Larry Bird of Indiana State did, and that grates on Magic); pro travel might be onerous; he would get closer to his degree in telecommunication (he's a 2.6 student). Mike Moore, a State professor, says, "If he would finish his four years, that would be the stylish way to go."
That's a sentiment with which Heath-cote agrees. "I want what's best for Earvin," says the coach, "and what's best for him is to stay. There are a lot of reasons—but still the specter of $2 million or whatever sits there...." Athletic Director Joe Kearney says, "I have a gut feeling that he's going to be here, but that's probably based on my stupidity." The university cares about Earvin on many levels. Three years ago, for example, basketball ticket sales produced $150,000 at MSU; last year $425,000. It's Magic.
Could the same thing happen in the pros? There are, as always, skeptics. The most common rap is that Earvin can't jump well. Other detractors say he can't score. Tucker grumps, "He doesn't score because he sometimes doesn't shoot much. He won't score a point, but he'll destroy you." One NBA executive says, "He will not turn around a franchise."
Tucker and Earvin Sr. (they say they won't hire an agent) also would like to make sure that the pros and Earvin have no direct dealings for fear he'll be in trouble with the NCAA. But unless Magic himself avoids the pressure of the pros, staying isolated will be difficult. NBA teams can swap draft choices right up to draft day and virtually any club could end up picking first. Last week the Lakers, who have New Orleans' first draft choice as compensation for losing Gail Goodrich, won the coin flip with Chicago for the first pick in the draft. Both teams have indicated they are interested in either Johnson or Sidney Moncrief of Arkansas.
Not that many college sophomores have as many options as Johnson. And so in the deep of night when he props his feet up and lets his mind run free, all things seem possible. "I guess I just love life," he said the other day in his apartment. "I'm getting so much enjoyment out of it. And I want others to. When a guy pays $3 or $4 for a ticket, I want him to get a show from me. He will, too, because I have to please myself—and I always do that. If I please me, it'll please others.
"Heck, I remember when I couldn't even let myself dream about being all-city. Then all-state was out of the question because of all those great guys out of Detroit. Now, I don't think I'm worth as much as Bird. Let's be honest. He played longer, has got the experience and the accolades and, besides, wow, he's a white superstar. Basketball sure needs him. But think of me in the NBA. One thing I'm always going to do is have fun. There is time for business, time for school and time for fun. You know, things can be happening at a party before I get there, but when I show up they just happen more."
Outside, somebody hollers, "Two more years!" and Earvin Johnson just grins.