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.
"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."