For Earvin (Magic) Johnson the One Hundred Days of Solitude were over. The long period of frustration and uselessness—the only such time in the 21 years of his blessed life—ended last Friday night. Johnson trotted onto the court at Los Angeles' sold-out Forum and brought 17,505 Laker fans to their feet. They remained standing and roaring, as it turned out, for 45 seconds, one second for each of the games Johnson had missed since he tore cartilage on the inside of his left knee on Nov. 18.
Johnson waved nervously to the crowd, then broke into that grin—the one that belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records for size and luminescence—and, as the noise grew, he spread his arms, palms up, as if to say, "Why are you people treating me this way? I'm just a basketball player and this is just another game. Against the New Jersey Nets, yet."
His teammates, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, six times the NBA's Most Valuable Player, joined in the ovation, and Laker Coach Paul Westhead seemed to be choking back tears. What was going on here? Just one more magical moment in the phenomenal career of Magic Johnson.
Just as injury is an inevitable adjunct to sport, so is the clichèd comeback. But there are comebacks and there are comebacks. Mickey Mantle folded his leg over his knee backward and came back. Rocky Bleier nearly had his foot blown away by a grenade and came back. Tommy John had his pitching arm reconstructed and came back. All Magic Johnson did was have a small piece of cartilage removed from his knee—a relatively minor procedure as knee operations go—and he is only 21 years old, for heaven's sake.
March 9, 1981
But the severity of the injury wasn't The Forum crowd's yardstick; it was responding to the persona of Johnson, the man-child who has never failed to live up to his nickname. Last year, his rookie season, he received most of the credit for nudging Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers to the NBA championship. The year before that, as a sophomore at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to the NCAA championship, and in 1977 he led Lansing's Everett High to the Class A Michigan high school championship. He is a great basketball player and has never been anything but a winner, but beyond that he is as appealing as any public figure, perhaps more so.
"I do think about that," says Johnson with a puckish grin. "And...I don't know. I guess I've been blessed. The strength comes from my father, the smile comes from my mother and...well, I just don't know why it's me. It just is. But it was always me, long before I got all this stardom...I mean, attention. I've always had it, and this goes all the way back to the first grade. Ask anybody in Lansing. They all know me."
Thus the injury, which occurred when Atlanta's 7'2½" Tom Burleson fell across the back of Magic's knee on Nov. 11 but wasn't discovered until a week later, during a game with Kansas City, had a devastating effect on Johnson and the team. At the time the Lakers were 15-5. Johnson was averaging 21.4 points (up from his rookie average of 18.0), leading the NBA in steals and assists and out-rebounding all guards with 8.2 per game. Without Magic, the Lakers lost five of their next eight games. But without the Lakers, Magic lost much of his spirit. For the first time he had no team to be part of. He had come face to face with his own athletic mortality.
"It made me see that, just as fast as you can rise to the top, you can come tumbling down," he said last week. "First they take your ball away. That's bad. And then, not being around the guys, that really hurts. I mean, you're alone now, you see. That's my life, being around the fellas, talking jive, singing on the bus, that's the whole thing. All of a sudden that's all taken away. I don't think missing the ball was that important. Missing the fellas was badder than missing the ball."
Westhead, the scholarly 42-year-old coach, knew he had to keep the Lakers from nose-diving, but he also saw Johnson's injury as an opportunity for a little academic study. "I had seriously wondered if Magic was human," he says. "I doubted that he was. The day before his surgery I thought, 'Gee, this guy's going to have surgery just like the rest of us.' The operation was at 8 a.m. on a Monday [Nov. 24], and I wanted to visit him. I didn't want to go too early because he would still be doped up. I figured I'd go around six o'clock and find out what this guy was really like. So I went to the room and the door was closed and I thought, 'Aha! A sign! He's crying and moaning.' I pushed the door open and peeked in and there was Magic propped up in the bed with a Dodger cap on backward, a piece of apple pie shoved up under his face, watching a football game, yelling at his father and a bunch of friends playing cards to keep the noise down. I couldn't believe it. I walked away that night thinking, 'What does this guy have that no one I've ever known has?' I guess he's human, but it's only a guess."
Even before the cast on his knee was removed, Johnson was already working indefatigably on his rehabilitation. He went home to Lansing over Thanksgiving and made two other trips there while away from the team. After their initial slump, the Lakers won five in a row, again lost five of eight, then went 17-7, ending up 28-17 for the 45 games they played without Magic. But it seemed that waiting for Magic was more important to the fans and the press than what the Lakers were doing without him, even though the Lakers had stayed close to Phoenix in second place in the Pacific Division.
"He's just one guy," Abdul-Jabbar would say. "He's special—he has great instincts and ability—but we're a team." Other Lakers said that the team could indeed win without Magic; it was Abdul-Jabbar they could never afford to lose.
Nonetheless, without their spiritual leader, the Lakers just weren't the same outfit. Without Magic, they could probably forget about becoming the first NBA team in 12 years to win back-to-back titles.
Even though he was still three weeks away from playing form. Johnson rejoined the team for practice on Feb. 2 and accompanied the Lakers on three road trips. His presence lifted everyone's spirits immediately. "I was pleased with the way we carried on without him," says Westhead. "But when Magic wasn't with us our performance—in practices, games, trips—was surgical: neat, clean, minimal talking, no nonsense. But when Magic returned it was like Looney Tunes. He created havoc. Everybody started laughing again. It was unreal."
The final road trip—Chicago and Milwaukee—took its toll on Johnson. He was besieged by reporters and asked the same questions over and over again: Was the knee all right? Would he be the same Magic? Would the team, now playing well without him, have to readjust? Did the other players resent all the attention that was being directed to a non-playing member? "What do you think?" said Johnson, in T shirt and jeans and not smiling, waving to a roomful of ignored uniformed Lakers. In practice that last afternoon in Milwaukee, Magic had passed his final test: as he matched up against bruising Mark Landsberger in a full-court two-on-two game, the exercise disintegrated into an ugly shouting match. "Everybody had finally had it," says Assistant Coach Pat Riley. "That meant only one thing. Magic was ready."
Back in Los Angeles, preparations were made for his return. At The Forum, 17,505 buttons reading "The Magic Is Back" would be distributed, two Magic Johnson Jogging Suits would be awarded to lucky ticket-holders. All over town his face, thirsting for 7-Up, beamed from billboards. His television commercials for the soft drink are a critical success, as is his spot for Buick with Willie Shoemaker. In fact, a new Buick ad is being shot this week and will be aired during the Academy Awards telecast later this month. In Los Angeles Magic Johnson is bigger than Bo Derek, than Steve Garvey, even, and he's making a serious run at Ronald Reagan for popularity. He was forced to darken the windows of his gold Mercedes, he says, for fear of causing accidents when people recognized him on the freeways. "If he keeps his head in perspective much longer, he'll be too wonderful for words," says Riley.
"The thing about Magic that amazes me," says Jamaal Wilkes, "is his timing. He's always at the right place at the right time—in high school, college and the pros. Look at the last playoff game. Everybody remembers it as 'Magic's Game' [Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Lakers beat Philadelphia for the championship while Abdul-Jabbar was out with an injury]. And look at him now, coming back as he is. a month before the playoffs. The spotlight's all his. And nobody on the team resents him at all. We love him. The only athlete I've ever seen who is like him is Ali."
Says Westhead. "Magic's timing is always too good for chance."
When the day finally arrived for Magic to play, though, he admitted, "I'm real scared. Like it's a first game." On the way to the court Friday night, Westhead asked Johnson if he knew Spanish.
"No," said Magic. "Why?"
"There's a word for what I want you to be tonight," said the coach. "Suave, suave. Easy, easy."
"I gotcha, Coach."
Johnson sat the bench while his teammates, unnerved by the pregame hysteria, made one of their sloppiest starts of the season. With 5:02 left in the first period and the Lakers behind 19-14, West-head sent Magic in for Wilkes. Every delicate step and slide was scrutinized—L.A. owner Jerry Buss admitted being "scared to death"—while the crowd waited for the magic to begin. It took a while. Johnson threw his first pass directly to the Nets' Maurice Lucas, then tossed another out of bounds. He missed his first two shots—both awkward hooks. But in the second period he scored nine points and began diving on the floor for loose balls. At one point he collided violently with Lucas and went sprawling, but he got up easily and later said, "I'm glad he knocked me down. I need to be knocked around."
Johnson's shooting was off the mark. Against New Jersey he made just four of 12 from the floor. (Two days later, before another sellout crowd at The Forum. he connected on only four of 11 in a 101-96 loss to the Suns.) But Johnson's contributions cannot be measured solely in baskets. And in the fourth period of his comeback game against the Nets he showed that the magic was really back. With the Lakers ahead 103-98, Johnson had the ball on the left wing. As Mike O'Koren dug in against him, Magic slapped the ball and yelled, "Here we go!" He faked twice, drove to the lane, then pitched to an open Norm Nixon for a 15-foot jumper. As the Lakers clung to a 105-103 lead with 10 seconds left, Magic crashed the offensive boards to retrieve a missed shot by Michael Cooper. It was his 11th rebound of the game (to go with 12 points in 24 minutes) and the act that preserved the victory. He dribbled around while the crowd screamed, then passed to Abdul-Jabbar, who was fouled and made two free throws to end the game at 107-103.
Magic's postgame media crush was enormous. The knee felt fine, he felt fine, the team was fine, he said. "Now I think all of you can leave me alone." Few did. They listened and listened some more, watching him undress and cut tape from his ankles. After an hour he looked up and still saw half a dozen reporters watching him. All the other players were gone. He stood up. looked around and said, as if he were the host of a party, "So now, if you all don't mind, it's been a wonderful evening. It's over. The night is over. I'm well. You can all go back to your certain cities, have a nice plane ride, I'm—going—to—take—a—shower."
The reporters lingered another few moments, long enough to hear loud, incredibly loud semi-musical sounds coming through the metal doors to the showers. The Jacksons' Heartbreak Hotel and Teddy Pendergrass' Love TKO. Magic was all alone. But he was singing.