In a few minutes he would stride confidently onto the Forum floor to the cheers of the crowd and make his NBA coaching debut, but first Magic Johnson allowed himself a moment's uncertainty. As he stood near the locker room, he turned to assistant coach Larry Drew. "Can you believe I'm the coach of the Lakers?" Johnson said. "What have I gotten myself into?"
Johnson can relax. All he got himself into when he replaced Randy Pfund as the Laker coach last week was a 16-game experiment, after which it will be largely up to him whether or not he keeps the job. In a way it feels like old times. The ball is in Magic's hands, and everyone is eager to see what he will do with it. He could pull up at the end of the season and dish the job off to someone else—and, by the way, is that Kentucky coach Rick Pitino on one wing, with Laker assistant Michael Cooper as the trailer?—or he could hold on to it and drive all the way into next season.
Most indications are that he intends to pass, but it's dangerous to assume anything when Johnson has the ball. Anyone who remembers him leading a fast break knows he likes to look one way and go another.
All that's certain is that after more than a year of overtures from Laker owner Jerry Buss, Johnson checked his calendar and decided that he could clear a month or so to coach the Lakers through the end of the regular season and, in the unlikely event they get that far, in the playoffs. After the Lakers made Johnson's coaching debut a success with a 110-101 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, they were 29-38, six games behind the Denver Nuggets for the final Western Conference playoff spot.
April 3, 1994
"Somebody compared [this] to taking a car for a test drive," says Johnson, who led the Lakers to five championships in a 12-year career that ended in November 1991, after he tested HIV-positive. "That's about right. I'm taking this job out to see how it handles, and Mr. Buss and [general manager] Jerry West are watching to see if they like the way I drive. Then we'll figure out if we've got a sale."
But it's Buss and the Lakers who have to sell Johnson on the idea of becoming a full-time coach. As much as he is intrigued by the idea of recapturing the Lakers' glory days, Johnson is reluctant to forgo some of his lucrative ventures, including his barnstorming basketball team, which has toured Europe and several CBA cities. It's hard to blame him. Would you rather play glorified pickup basketball in Florence or worry about Elden Campbell's low-post defense?
Johnson stresses that he agreed only to coach the rest of this season and only as a favor to his good friend Buss. He also points out that officially he is not being paid to coach. (He will have to struggle by on the $2.5 million this season and the $14 million next year that the Lakers had already agreed to pay him.) "I'm sacrificing a lot by taking this job," Johnson says. "I love my freedom. I liked my life the way it was. I can make more money in Europe than on a coach's salary, even if they made me the highest-paid coach in the league."
So why did the Lakers fire Pfund and ask Johnson, so close to the end of the season, to take a job he didn't necessarily want? Mainly because Buss knew that Johnson was far more likely to commit to a month of coaching than to a year of it and because Buss hopes that Johnson will be bitten by the coaching bug and decide to return next season. But even if that doesn't happen, there is the feeling that Johnson and Cooper, another major contributor to the Lakers' past glory, will help the current Lakers.
And then, of course, there is Johnson's public-relations value. He's a stronger box-office draw than most of the Hollywood celebrities who suddenly are calling the Laker offices again for tickets. This season the Lakers had only two sellouts before Magic's return, but they sold out his first game, and tickets are now moving more briskly than before. An editorial cartoon in The Orange County Register showed Buss preparing to shoot a basketball with Johnson's name on it, over a caption that read, "Off the media, through the box office, nothing but net." But the Lakers had only 10 home dates remaining when Johnson returned, not enough for his presence to make a huge difference on their balance sheet. The more immediate benefit of Magic's presence is the luster it gives to the team's tarnished image.
"They didn't bring me in just to fill up the Forum," Johnson says. "Believe me, if I was hired just to make the Lakers some money, I'd be getting a piece of it. I'm a businessman."
And Buss will clearly have to appeal to Johnson the businessman if he wants to retain Johnson the coach. The only way Johnson will return to the Laker sideline next season is if he becomes a part owner of the team. Buss says that Magic has a standing invitation to buy a minority share of the Lakers. But even that may not be enough to entice Johnson to continue coaching, because the possibility of a greater stake—and greater power—in another franchise also appeals to him.
No matter how long he lasts as the Lakers' coach, Johnson won't soon forget his first game. He was clearly moved by the occasion. When he gave his pregame speech to the team, he began, then had to pause and collect himself before beginning again. Johnson spent most of the game on his feet, directing his players and working the officials like a sideline veteran. He also found out why coaches grow old before their time: He watched the Lakers build a 36-point third-quarter lead with the fast breaks and defensive pressure he wants to reestablish as their trademarks, and then he agonized as that lead dwindled to seven before the Lakers nailed down the win. "I feel like I played," Johnson said afterward. And although he didn't need the postgame ice packs on his shoulders and knees that he often required when he played, he said, "I could use an ice pack for my throat."
Firing Pfund and hiring Johnson were clearly Buss's moves, but West—notwithstanding the assumptions that he disapproved of the change—believes Magic can be an excellent coach. "I don't know if I've ever seen a player who was as much a coach on the floor as he was," West says.
The factor that complicates matters, of course, is Johnson's AIDS virus. But Laker team physician Michael Mellman says Johnson does not have AIDS itself, and he supported Johnson's decision to coach.
For Johnson the best thing about the arrangement is the chance to get his former team started on its way back to the top. The decline of the Lakers gnawed at him, as he showed when he publicly criticized the team last month for a lack of pride and effort. Earlier this season, as Johnson was signing autographs on one of the upper levels of the Forum during a game, he was asked to sign an old SI cover that showed him and Cooper embracing. "Now those were the Lakers," he said looking at the cover. Then he pointed to the court. "Those are not the Lakers."
Given his concern for the team, Johnson is irritated by the perception that he is not serious about coaching. For perhaps the first time in his life Johnson's enthusiasm is being questioned. His constant assertion that he took over as a favor to Buss led many observers to conclude that he wasn't committed, when in fact he was only making it clear that this arrangement was Buss's idea. He remembers being accused of orchestrating the firing of another Laker coach, Paul Westhead, 12½ years ago—perhaps the only black mark on Johnson's playing career—and he doesn't want to be held responsible for Pfund's dismissal too.
But Johnson began to answer the questions about his commitment when he arrived at the Forum at 8 a.m. on Saturday, his first day of work. He studied a list of the Lakers' NBA rankings in every category, and when he met with reporters later in the day, he peppered his answers with statistics.
And no one who saw his first practice could think that he was anything but enthusiastic. Johnson put his team through an intense three-hour-and-20-minute workout that would have made the demanding Riley proud. The session included a healthy dose of running—"They're in shape to walk it up," Johnson says, "but they're not in shape to run the way I want to run"—and an emphasis on defense.
Said guard Sedale Threatt, "If he had us all season, my pants wouldn't fit."
Another thing that rankles Johnson is the theory that he accepted the job because he needs to be at center stage, that he can't adjust to a lack of attention. "I don't need the spotlight," he says. "My life is a spotlight. If I wanted to coach, I could have done it before this. I could have been the Laker coach last season. I could be the coach of Atlanta right now if I had taken their offer last season."
Still, being a coach will take some getting used to. At times Johnson, who doesn't want his players to call him Coach, seems like he has been coaching the Lakers all his life; at other times he seems like the neophyte he is. When Lon Rosen, his agent, asked him what time he wanted to hold his first practice, Johnson replied that whatever time the players wanted was fine. "I reminded him that he's the coach now, he's the one who sits at the front of the bus, and practice is whatever time he wants it," Rosen said.
But once at practice, Johnson is completely at ease with being in charge. His trademark smile appears infrequently, and although he doesn't yell, he has no difficulty getting his anger across when he senses that a player is going at less than full speed. After the first workout, though, Johnson sounded like a rookie coach. "I really don't know all of our plays yet," he said laughing, "so I can't get mad at Nick [Van Exel, the point guard] for calling the wrong one yet."
There were little signs, however, that coaching the Lakers might be Johnson's destiny. When John Black, the team's director of public relations, checked to see how many messages he had from reporters the night Johnson's hiring leaked out, the number Hashing on his answering machine was 32, Magic's former number.
Johnson admits that there will be times during his coaching tenure when he's tempted to slip on that number 32 again, but all parties insist there is no chance that he will evolve into a player-coach. "It was never discussed," says West, "and people are being unfair to him by constantly asking about it."
Nor have Johnson and his employers settled on when he will inform them whether he will continue to coach. Johnson says he will let the Lakers know within two weeks of the season finale, but Buss believes Laker management will have a clear feeling after the first 10 games. In fact Johnson may already have dropped a hint. When asked after his first practice if he had learned anything from the workout, Johnson said, "Yeah, that I might not want to coach very long."
Then he laughed one of those hearty Magic laughs. The Lakers hope he was just kidding.