A few years ago—even last season—it wouldn't have been unusual to see a fan taking a snooze at courtside during a Los Angeles Lakers game in The Forum, where the chilly reserve of the crowds usually runs about 10° below body temperature.
Ah, but that is the past. Things are warming up now, and by last week the long nights of ennui and frustration were but a grim and distant memory at the once-again-Fabulous Forum, where the Lakers had won nine of 10 games and were clearly enjoying life in the fast-break lane. The new-look Lakers had replaced the no-look, no-luck, old-look Lakers, and nowhere was the change more brightly apparent than in the beaming kisser of Earvin (Magic) Johnson Jr.
After being selected No. 1 in the college draft last June at the age of 19, Johnson, who as a sophomore had led Michigan State to the 1978-79 NCAA championship, went west and became simply Magic, both upper and lower case. If he is as good as his first month in the league seems to promise, at the ripe old age of 20 he may just be capable of helping the Lakers win the 1980 NBA title.
Johnson was never more typically Magic than in last Friday's 126-122 overtime victory over Denver. Despite blowing three fairly easy shots as the Lakers plodded through the first quarter, Johnson scored an NBA career-high 31 points—hitting 10 of 16 shots from the field, including eight straight baskets during the Lakers' game-winning rally—passed for eight assists and grabbed six rebounds. More than that, he and Norm Nixon, L.A.'s other outstanding young guard, had cranked up the fast-break game in the second half. "When we started running, my confidence started to rise," said Magic. "That's when I knew it was time to deal on some people. When we're rolling and the break is going, I guess it looks like I am performing magic out there. There are some nights I think I can do anything." He stopped for a moment and his soft brown eyes widened. "You really have to love the game to play that way, though," he said. "You can't be afraid to let your emotions out in front of 13,000 people."
That is a fairly breathtaking statement, considering the fact that if the entire emotional content of one of the Lakers' recent seasons were on film, it could be screened during one cycle of the 24-second clock. But anyone who has seen Johnson play can tell you that despite all his raw skills, it is the sheer force of his personality that accounts for his particular genius. "Magic's greatest asset is his enthusiasm, the way he can lift his team up," says Donnie Walsh, coach of the Nuggets.
"He really is magic," says Guard Brian Taylor of San Diego. "He's got great charisma. It's fun just to watch someone who can get the ball to his teammates when they're open. There are a few other players in the league who can do that, but what makes Magic special is the way he brings his own personality to it."
Golden State Coach Al Attles was so concerned about the hypnotic effect of Johnson's passing that during practice one day last week he warned his team, "Don't get mesmerized by Magic." Even after Johnson's least inspired performance of the week in a 126-109 loss to the Warriors, Attles remained impressed. "There are two types of passers," he said. "The first kind can make a pass that looks good but doesn't lead to anything; the second can get the ball to a teammate when he's in a position to do something with the ball. Magic is the second kind."
A day earlier, in a game against San Diego, Johnson had scored 18 points, pulled down nine rebounds and dealt out eight assists without committing a turnover. In the third quarter, when the Lakers were in the process of widening a five-point advantage to 12 points en route to a 127-112 win, Johnson had stood near midcourt and fired a pass between two Clippers to Laker Forward Jim Chones underneath the basket. Magic had not seemed to notice Chones, and, for that matter, Chones was buried so deep in traffic that he didn't really consider himself to be open. When the ball came whistling through the jerseys and into Chones' hands, he regarded it suspiciously and then dumped it into the basket. As he trotted down the floor, Chones shook his head in disbelief. "Magic sees angles a lot of guards don't see," he says, "and he gives you the ball in the rhythm of your move so you can go right up with it."
As any magician knows, the illusion of perfection is achieved only after a succession of awkward failures, and Johnson was less than spectacular in the Lakers' preseason workouts as he adjusted to his new surroundings. "During training camp I just watched my new teammates and tried to pay attention to their tendencies," he says. "If I'm going to throw a no-look pass, I want to be sure somebody's going to be there to catch it. A lot of times I messed up because I thought somebody would be somewhere they weren't, or because they thought I couldn't see them when they were open. I hit a lot of people in the face at first and I got a lot of turnovers, but I just worked at it until I got it right."
Johnson is one of seven new players in Laker uniforms this season, a statistic that makes Los Angeles' strong start all the more impressive. Former Portland Assistant Jack McKinney, in his first season as a head coach in the pros, wasted no time putting distance between his team and L.A. teams of the past. Spencer Haywood was acquired from Utah to become the Lakers' rebounding forward; then, when Chones, who was with Cleveland, became available, he supplanted Haywood in the starting lineup along with becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's backup. McKinney's most important selling job was persuading Nixon to give up his playmaking role and adjust to working most of the time without the ball. Magic, despite his many virtues, does not run well without the ball and often seems to lose his concentration when he is not directing traffic.
McKinney, who suffered a head injury last Thursday when he fell from a bicycle he was riding near his home, was in "serious but stable" condition at week's end. Before his accident, he made no secret of his respect for his prized rookie. Two weeks ago, in fact, when McKinney called time out with the score tied and less than 30 seconds to play against Phoenix, he ordered a play designed to get the ball to Forward Jamaal Wilkes, only to allow himself to be talked into giving Magic the final shot. The person who made the suggestion, of course, was Johnson, and McKinney's judgment was redeemed when Magic was fouled with six seconds remaining and won the game with two free throws.
"The Lakers of the past few years, because they didn't have a wealth of fast, ball-handling guards, had to slow the ball down and milk what they had, which was Kareem, Jamaal and Adrian Dantley," says McKinney. "Because those three are basically quiet people, the Lakers' style was not very exciting, and they became a bland, quiet team.
"The first thing Magic brought to us was a lot more enthusiasm and excitement, and I think that has been infectious. Also, when you get a new player as heralded as Magic was, it helps if he spends all night trying to pass the ball to his teammates. We envisioned him being a terrific leader and ball handler, and with his size we figured he'd be particularly adept at getting the ball in to Kareem. We never thought of him as a scorer, but when he started playing in all-star games against other NBA players over the summer he scored 30 or 40 points a game. That's when we began to realize the full extent of his potential."
At Michigan State last season Johnson averaged only 17 points, and he seemed certain to score even less than that in the pros. In fact, the opposite has been true, probably because the NBA's 24-second clock forces more running than is commonly seen in college competition, and Johnson is an absolute master of the transition game. After 12 games—he missed three with a knee sprain—he was averaging 20.3 points and hitting 55.5% of his field-goal attempts, mostly taken near the basket, where he has been able to make good use of his height, which is 6'8½", and his long arms, which are ridiculous.
With the score 88-88 against Denver, Magic picked off a pass from David Thompson to Tom Boswell. He threw his right arm out as if he were casting for marlin. Reeling the ball in, he launched himself down the court in a blur of elbows and knees. When he reached the free-throw line at the other end of the floor, he feinted to his left, added an almost imperceptible hitch to his dribble, and then crashed between two defenders as he uncoiled a soft bank shot that settled into the nets for two points.
"He's so young and he has so much enthusiasm for the game that it affects the whole team," says Chones, now in his eighth pro season. "We've all got enthusiasm, but if some of the older guys had that much I think we'd burn up in about 25 minutes." If one veteran Laker in particular has been noticeably more animated this season, it has been Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem reported to training camp more muscular than ever and has occasionally lunged after loose balls this season with an abandon that, while not really reckless, has been mostly absent from his game since he was in Milwaukee five seasons ago. "Kareem has proved everything there is to prove individually," says McKinney, who was an assistant coach at Milwaukee when Abdul-Jabbar was there. "I think as long as we're doing the things it takes to win, he knows now it doesn't have to be Kareem every night."
Once the season had begun, it didn't take long for fans to start wondering if the Lakers were now Kareem's team, or Magic's. The answer probably is that the team was never Kareem's to lose, that he had remained so aloof from past Laker squads that those teams had never had any emotional focus. "It's not Kareem's way to be jumping up and down all the time," says Nixon, "but you can tell he's more enthusiastic now."
Johnson had read the stories about Abdul-Jabbar's increasing boredom with the game and had reported to the Lakers with a certain amount of apprehension. "Kareem represents the franchise," says Magic, "so I guess I wanted to be accepted by him more than anybody else. I had heard that he was unemotional, that he didn't work hard. But the stories I heard weren't true—he cracked jokes, he got mad, and he worked hard. The guy has got feelings."
Keeping Abdul-Jabbar happy and interested should be no problem, with Johnson and his nuclear smile in Laker land. But who will keep Magic happy? Never fear, the kid amuses himself. "I'm going to keep on smiling because that's how I live," he says. "When I get up in the morning I'm grateful to see the sun. I'm just going to go on being happy old Earvin because that's what people seem to like. And it's fun to be liked, the funnest thing of all."