Thirty minutes after the Los Angeles Lakers had thrashed the San Antonio Spurs 136-116 last Friday night at The Forum, Magic Johnson felt not only relieved and vindicated but just plain good, too. He had scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out 16 assists, had three steals and one block—and had turned boos to cheers. More important, at least from his point of view, he was having fun again.
"Yeah, I'm happy and so are him and him and him," Johnson said, gesturing toward the empty lockers of teammates Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose happiness votes, if Magic's words were taken at face value, evidently had been proxied to him. "This is the way it was two years ago, those eeeasy buckets. You see the way we were moving tonight? Pow-pow-pow. See the way Kareem was handling the ball out there? When he gets into that mood, whew!"
But no one's mood had been as closely watched this night as Johnson's. How's that? Wasn't this the player whose ebullient personality as much as his extraordinary skills had turned Michigan State into an NCAA champion in 1979 and the Lakers into NBA title-winners the next year—when he might have been a 20-year-old college junior? But of late he wasn't having fun anymore. Sure, the Lakers were still an exciting team, and, sure, they were in the midst of a winning streak that would stretch to seven straight by last weekend. Still, until the defeat of the Spurs, Magic hadn't been finding 1981-82 anywhere near as enjoyable as 1979-80. So, for the misdemeanor of making Johnson and his buddy, Laker owner Jerry Buss, unhappy by creating an unimaginative offense—one in which, according to Magic, the team wasn't getting enough shots—Coach Paul West-head was fired and replaced by his assistant, Pat Riley, with former Laker Coach Jerry West coming on to coach the offense. Certainly there were no sound basketball reasons for the change.
Two nights before, after the Lakers had beaten the Utah Jazz 113-110 for their fifth straight victory, Westhead had met with Johnson to express his displeasure over what he called a "lack of concentration on Magic's part." That reportedly meant that either Johnson hadn't listened to Westhead during a time-out late in that night's game or had failed to run a play to the coach's satisfaction. In the locker room after that meeting, Johnson told the press that he couldn't play under Westhead's system anymore and that he wanted to be traded. After the Lakers arrived back in Los Angeles the next morning, Buss called a press conference, and Westhead was gone, with the remaining three years of his four-year, $1.1 million contract guaranteed.
November 30, 1981
Before last week it was hard to imagine anything more unlikely than Johnson causing his coach to be fired. After all, he's the love-everybody kid whom all of L.A. had taken to its heart when he had almost singlehandedly beaten the Philadelphia 76ers in the sixth and deciding game of the 1980 NBA finals. Abdul-Jabbar was hurt and didn't make the trip east, so the 6'9" Johnson, moving from guard to center—with a 37-point boost from Wilkes—took things into his own hands: 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and an NBA title. After the game, Johnson told a national TV audience that this one was for Kareem: "Hey, big fella, we'll be dancing on the plane for you."
Johnson missed 45 games last season with a left knee injury but came back with a month to go, and all seemed right with the Lakers—until they were upset in a playoff mini-series with Houston. Johnson took the shot on the Lakers' last play in that defeat and came up with nothing but air. That was no fun.
About two months later, Buss made a shocking announcement: He had signed Johnson to a 25-year, $25 million contract starting in 1984. Barely a month after Abdul-Jabbar heard about that deal he was in Buss's office demanding that the owner regain his senses. Surely you can't be serious, Jerry. Magic's a great kid and a terrific player, but with that kind of money, nobody's going to be able to talk to him—not even the coach.... Abdul-Jabbar was assuaged, but the seeds of discord had been planted.
Came the new season, and Johnson immediately showed that Abdul-Jabbar's fears were well founded. Seems the 42-year-old Westhead, a coach with 11 years of experience in the college and pro game, felt he had the prerogative to install 25 or 30 new plays, many of which were designed to get the ball in to the center, a fellow by the name of Abdul-Jabbar. An opening-night double-overtime loss to those pesky Rockets on national TV didn't set well with Buss, even though a desperation three-point shot by Johnson had sent the game into the first overtime. By the sixth game, an embarrassing 128-102 defeat at San Antonio on Nov. 10, which dropped L.A.'s record to 2-4, Buss had had enough. "There was a lack of excitement on offense that I wanted to see," he would say later. "I want to see a fluid team on the floor. I enjoyed 'Showtime' [the L.A. media's and Buss's word for exciting play] and I want to see it again...I'm speaking as much as a fan as anything else."
Through the Lakers' first 11 games, Johnson averaged 17.4 points, three steals and a league-leading 10 assists—but he wasn't enjoying himself. "I'm here to play ball and have fun, and that hasn't been happening," he said early Friday afternoon. "I'm not here to get anyone fired. I'm not management, I'm just a player like everyone else. I run laps and get fines, too."
That's vintage Magic, which is why it's so hard to believe he actually precipitated Westhead's firing. But if he did—and only he and Buss know for sure—he has undergone an abrupt transformation: The 20-year-old who had the ability to make everyone smile just by walking into a room, onto a court or into a 7-Up commercial has turned into a greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old.
This is considered so unlikely a turn of events that there's a theory afoot in L.A. that Buss talked Magic into complaining about the offense. And that gave Buss a reason to fire Westhead, who had won 112 games in two seasons.
For the record, Buss says that even without Johnson's statements, he "was sure" Westhead would have been gone within a matter days. But the fact that it happened less than a day after Johnson's outburst in Utah gave some Lakers cause to wonder. Wilkes, who was "shocked" by Johnson's statements, had this thought: "If he [Magic] got mad at a player, would the player be gone the next day?"
At least one Laker fan thinks West-head's dismissal could be beneficial. "Any change, no matter how small, will have a dramatic effect, because no one knows what's going on," says actor Walter Matthau, a longtime season-ticket holder. "If you have a factory and one day dim all the lights, the workers will wonder, 'Why are the lights down?' and they'll work harder. Two weeks later turn the lights up high. They'll say, 'Why are they so bright?' The question is, how long will the effect of the changes last?"
Like the workers in Matthau's factory, no one seemed to know what was going on at the press conference announcing Westhead's firing. Buss said that West would be the offensive coach, with Riley "continuing to be a coach," the implication being that West would be in charge. Not so, said West, the 14-time Laker All-Star guard and coach from 1976-77 to 1978-79; "My role will be working with and for Pat Riley." Riley, who had been notified of his promotion only two hours before the press conference, then said that he was in control of the team. Another surprise for Buss came when both Riley and West said the Lakers' problems weren't, as Buss had indicated, major. West even went so far as to say the area needing the most work was the defense, which wasn't why he was brought in.
The proceedings were strongly reminiscent of the Lakers' mishandling of the plight of Coach Jack McKinney two seasons ago when McKinney was seriously injured after falling off a bicycle 13 games into the season. Assistant Coach Westhead took over the team and remained in control even after McKinney's recovery. Buss, unable to make a choice between the two men and unwilling to disturb the chemistry on what had become a winning squad, let McKinney languish as a scout before choosing Westhead as the permanent coach in mid-February, in part because he and Westhead got along well together. The choice looked like a great one when the Lakers went on to win the championship. Four days after the title was won Buss signed Westhead to the four-year, million-dollar contract, calling him "the best basketball coach in the world."
The Lakers already possessed perhaps the best fast break in the league, but Westhead wanted to increase Los Angeles' proficiency at running a set offense by installing a new system this fall. "There was just too much thinking," one player said. "Everybody was wondering who was supposed to be doing this and doing that. We couldn't just go out there and say, 'I can do what I want.' "
Westhead, perhaps unaware of his players' grumbling and his owner's dissatisfaction, stayed with the new offense. "I thought we were becoming an excellent team," he said upon being fired. But not an esthetically pleasing one. The first five games of the win streak—the ones Westhead coached—were decided by a total of 11 points.
That wasn't the kind of excitement Buss had in mind. On Nov. 15 he met with West and General Manager Bill Sharman and told them he wanted to dismiss Westhead for uninspired victories over what he perceived to be inferior opponents. He says he was talked out of it by the other two. That evening the Lakers struggled through another double-overtime game, beating the Pacers 124-123. Three nights later came the Utah game and Magic's moment. At 11:30 a.m. the next day Buss again met with West and Sharman. With Johnson's trade demand in the papers, all three men were now in agreement that a change should be made, and West volunteered his services. Buss accepted the offer and then tried to notify some of the Laker veterans. He succeeded only in reaching the captain, Abdul-Jabbar, who later said, "I'm disappointed at the way it happened." There was also a conversation with Johnson that lasted less than a minute. The subject: a birthday party that Buss and Johnson were to attend that evening.
At approximately 1:30, Westhead, who was about to leave his Forum office to go home and study some San Antonio game films, was called and asked to meet with Buss in less than an hour. By 3:15 he was unemployed, although he refused to believe his offense was to blame. "No one—player or coach—could have been more desirous of running the ball than I was," Westhead said. "I don't know that it wasn't happening; it's difficult to make an evaluation after 11 games. Very clearly, if we weren't running it wasn't a result of me and what I was trying to do."
Riley agrees: "Any time you run an offense with a center in the low post," he says, "you're going to have trouble with the half-court offense, a lack of movement, and it also tends to put restrictions on freelancing. Even when we won the championship there were players unhappy with the offense."
This time it was Johnson who spoke up: "Why was it wrong for me to talk? Should I shut up and be unhappy and jeopardize the team, waiting for something to blow up?
"Ask anyone who saw us. We were the dullest team in the league. I'd look at films and say, 'What is this?' We would get dressed before games and there would be no enthusiasm, nothing; we'd all just sit there."
If there ever was a time that Johnson didn't want to be blah, it was against the Midwest Division-leading Spurs last Friday, when for the first time he would be cast in the role of a villain. "I know I'm going to be booed but I have to deal with it," he said. "As long as I know in my heart that I didn't try to get him fired, I can handle it." Would he make something special happen right away in an effort to win over the fans? He giggled and said, "If it comes right away, that would be good. I think something good will be there."
Johnson, the first Laker starter introduced, was roundly booed, and the razz-berries resumed the first time he touched the ball. Even though he passed off for an assist the next time downcourt, the noise continued, but things were slowly changing. First came a trickle of cheers, then a torrent halfway through the second period. Rebounding a missed shot, Johnson dribbled down the left sideline. Just after he crossed halfcourt, he alley-ooped a pass to a streaking Michael Cooper for a dunk. Twenty-eight seconds later he scored on a jump hook. Twenty-two seconds thereafter he fed Abdul-Jabbar for a basket. Less than a minute later Johnson was slicing through the middle for a layup. And 26 seconds after that he repeated the act. In the final five minutes of the half, Johnson would score eight more points and pass for another pair, capping a quarter of 14 points, four rebounds and five assists.
The second half was more of the same as Johnson's enthusiasm spread to the other Lakers, particularly Mitch Kupchak, who for the game was 11 for 11 from the field with 17 rebounds, and Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 30 points, even filled the wings on some fast breaks, and brought the ball upcourt a couple of times. The Lakers' 136 points surpassed their high this season in regulation time by 15 points and were 28 more than their season average. More important, especially for Johnson, there were at least 30 Laker points off the fast break, more than they had in any game under Westhead. After the game, Riley, the un-coach, accepted congratulations all around for the sage advice he gave his team. "I told them to wing it—just like I was doing," he said. Another smiling face belonged to Buss, who thanked each player individually for his effort. "This, I think, is the beginning of Showtime," said Buss. "At least the curtain is up."
But, alas, the curtain is down on the old Magic. Johnson, who had been criticized from coast to coast, was clearly still a great player. Just as clearly, he's no longer such a great guy.