MEMO TO MAGIC
"I hope this taught all of us a lesson....I hope our young guys
look at Houston and realize this is how we ought to be."
--The Lakers' Magic Johnson, after the Rockets eliminated Los
Angeles from the playoffs last Thursday in their first-round
Western Conference series, 3-1.
Johnson got it half right. The young Lakers should take a good,
long look at the defending champion Rockets, who epitomize
professionalism, discipline and unselfish basketball. And when
they are done, they should implore Johnson to do the same thing.
The Lakers, who arguably were the deepest team in the West, were
unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs, but not just because
the young bucks from La La Land don't know how to win yet. Their
quick departure also has something to do with a grizzled warrior
who brandishes five championship rings but temporarily forgot
how he earned them.
May 12, 1996
In his 12-season, preretirement career, which ended in 1991 with
the announcement that he was HIV-positive, Magic Johnson was one
of the best players who ever lived--the embodiment of team play.
But since his return in January as a 36-year-old
legend-in-residence, he has become a sometimes divisive
influence, chiding his teammates in one breath for straying from
the concept of we, then in the next breath explaining in detail
why he needs the ball in the post, why he needs to play more
point guard next year and why he needs more minutes.
As a sixth man playing 30 minutes per game, mostly at forward,
Johnson contributed a forgettable eight points in L.A.'s 102-94
Game 4 defeat. Afterward he outlined what the Lakers should do
to make him more comfortable next season (for which he is not
yet signed), including allowing him to play point guard 40%-50%
of the time. If L.A. is unwilling or unable to accommodate that
desire, Magic announced, "then I'll say O.K., thanks, it's been
nice. There's five, six or 10 other teams I know already that
Do the Lakers a favor, Magic. Call up those five, six or 10
teams right now and cut yourself a deal. Spare your beloved
franchise the uncomfortable job of explaining to you that yes,
you once were invincible, but no longer. Age is your Kryptonite.
You still exhibit spurts of brilliance, and it's easy to
understand why owner Jerry Buss is awash in nostalgia every time
you coax your trademark baby hook through the hoop, but where
did these increasingly rare moments of inspired play get you?
More important, where did they get your team?
When Johnson made his celebrated comeback, he immediately
energized the Lakers with his versatility, his charisma and his
innate sense of the game. Coach Del Harris cunningly used him as
a lethal sixth man who could play virtually any position on the
floor, and L.A. flourished.
But in the playoffs Magic wanted the ball so he could
demonstrate to the kids how it's done. After a Game 1 loss in
which Johnson scored 20 points, he publicly wondered why Harris
didn't want him to operate solely out of the post, where he felt
he was most effective.
What he didn't recognize was that when he hunkered down on the
block, his teammates stood and watched, halting the ball
movement that made the Lakers one of the most dangerous teams in
the West during the final month of the regular season.
Harris was right, Magic. You were most valuable to the team when
you were out on the perimeter, creating opportunities for
yourself and others. And your coach deserved better than your
criticism of his strategy. He was the one who heartily embraced
your return, hyping your status as a superstar and a winner,
while others in the organization were queasy at the prospect of
your pulling on that retired number 32 jersey.
No doubt, other teams do have interest in Johnson's services.
But do those teams want him to sell tickets or to win games?
Miami coach Pat Riley, Magic's coach during the Lakers' glory
years in the '80s, loves Johnson like a son, but Riley is trying
to build a championship team, not a family tree. You make the
call: If Riley has a choice of spending $10 million on his old
Showtime pal or on the Bullets' gifted young All-Star forward
and free-agent-to-be, Juwan Howard, whom do you think he'll
choose? Isn't it obvious?
Perhaps to everyone but Johnson himself. In an interview with
the Los Angeles Times before Game 4, Magic, who earned $2.5
million for playing half of this season, assessed the impending
free-agent scramble and his own status by saying, "Michael
Jordan is going to be paid the highest, and I have to be right
up there with Michael, Shaq, whatever."
How much should the Lakers have to pay Magic Johnson? When he
retired the first time, the franchise sent him on his way with
wheelbarrows of cash ($19.6 million), and if this is all about
team, shouldn't Magic understand the need to preserve cap
flexibility to sign Orlando's O'Neal and/or Howard, two
high-impact players who have expressed interest in L.A.?
No one should condemn Magic Johnson for thirsting to win and for
believing he can make it happen. But before training camp he
should sit in a dark room and watch films of himself from L.A.'s
abbreviated 1996 postseason. Perhaps the images will surprise
him. He still has the savvy and confidence most of his fellow
players can only dream about, but he's the one who's dreaming if
he thinks he has the same impact as Michael Jordan or Shaquille
There's still a place for Johnson. If he can learn to live with
his role as that crafty sixth man who made L.A.'s stretch run so
entertaining, who wouldn't want him?
But Houston guard Sam Cassell got it right when he declared that
the '80s were over. Showtime is past time, to be replayed on
VCRs in the heat of June when today's Lakers are on the golf
course, reviewing their early playoff exit, and wondering what
might have been.
THE MOURNING AFTER
In Miami's first two losses--by 17 and 31 points, respectively--
to Chicago during their first-round Eastern Conference playoff
series, Heat center Alonzo Mourning averaged 12.0 points, 5.0
fouls, 6.5 turnovers, 0.5 blocks and 5.0 rebounds. In Game 3,
which completed the Bulls' sweep, Mourning salvaged his series
scoring average, at least, by tossing in 30 points. His team
still lost by 21.
Come July 1, Mourning will be a free agent. His disastrous
postseason has renewed the debate over his value, which insiders
have estimated could fall between $13 million and $17 million a
season if the Heat, as expected, re-sign him.
Queries from SI to the league's general managers produced
doubters (all of whom wished to remain anonymous) who question
whether the 6'10" Mourning is a true center, whether his limited
offensive skills can be expanded and whether he can learn to
handle a double team. While most G.M.s conceded that they would
love to have Mourning, one wondered whether he's "a guy who can
be your aircraft carrier." Another was more blunt: "When
[Chicago's] Luc Longley kicks your butt, there's not a lot you
can say about how valuable you are."
Heat owner Micky Arison insists Mourning's postseason
performance has not altered his interest. "Zo maybe had one bad
game," Arison says. "The first game, he didn't play because he
was in foul trouble the whole time. The second game, he didn't
do well, and in the third game, I thought he was terrific.
[Chicago's] Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan went out in the
playoffs three times in a row. I'm sure [Bulls owner] Jerry
Reinsdorf is happy he didn't give up on them."
The Heat is also unlikely to give up on point guard Tim
Hardaway, who was acquired from the Warriors in February.
Hardaway will be back unless he demands a substantial raise (he
made $3.7 million this season) or Miami can pry Gary Payton,
another free-agent point guard, away from Seattle (highly
But Miami has no interest in retaining forward Walt Williams,
who scored two points in the final two playoff games. When he
was acquired from Sacramento in February, Williams was adamant
that at the end of the season, he would exercise a contractual
escape clause allowing him to become a free agent. But now that
his value has plummeted, Williams is reconsidering, and Miami
might be stuck with him for two more years at $2.8 million and
$3.1 million, respectively. If so, the team will actively try to
The Heat is undecided about another of its free-agents-to-be,
backup forward-center Chris Gatling. But if Nuggets center
Dikembe Mutombo is interested in coming to Miami, as his fellow
Georgetown alum Mourning claims, Gatling would not be re-signed
and Mourning would move to power forward. And though the Heat is
undecided whether to re-sign shooting guard Rex Chapman--like
Mourning and Mutombo, a David Falk client--there's speculation
that Chapman is tied to Mourning in a package deal. Says Falk,
"If Zo wants Rex as a teammate, then I think Miami would
consider that a good idea. But that's Zo's call."
THE BUCK STOPS WHERE?
Mike Dunleavy knew Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl wanted him gone, so
when the two met last week, Dunleavy was expecting to work out a
settlement that would release him from the four years and $6.4
million left on his coach/general manager's contract. Instead,
sources say, Kohl balked at eating Dunleavy's salary and simply
stripped him of his coaching duties.
Dunleavy's G.M. title, however, no longer carries any clout. In
fact, sources confirm, Kohl already has gone searching for
front-office help, beginning with University of Utah coach Rick
Majerus, who was approached about becoming coach/G.M. but
removed himself from consideration.
SI has learned that Kohl also contacted veteran Spurs guard Doc
Rivers concerning the posts. Rivers, a Marquette alumnus who is
expected to retire after this season, is in the middle of the
playoffs with San Antonio and won't address his future until his
season is over. Rivers would be interested only in a management
Where does all this leave Dunleavy? Ticked off enough, the Bucks
are hoping, to quit and take a job elsewhere.
At his end-of-season meeting with management, Golden State
center Rony Seikaly reiterated a wish to be traded. Atlanta has
long been interested, but it does not have a center to send west
in return. Boston can offer Eric Montross, who is displeased
with his team's center-by-committee approach and who will
exercise his option to leave the Celtics in the summer of '97 if
they don't trade him first. But next season he'll earn only
$1.28 million, and Seikaly is on the books at $3.75 million, too
big a gulf for Boston. Cleveland likes Montross and even offered
the Celts a first-round draft pick just before the Feb. 22
trading deadline. But trading Montross would work for the
Celtics only if they can replace him with Clippers
free-agent-to-be Brian Williams, whom they covet, or Pacers
free-agent-to-be Antonio Davis. Williams, meanwhile, has
expressed an interest in playing for the center-starved Cavaliers.