But Johnson's effect is more obvious on the floor than on the stat sheet. His mere presence seems to cause other Lakers to make the extra pass. On a fast break against the Sonics last week, Campbell, who is having the best season of his career (at week's end averaging 13.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.55 blocks), took a pass as he headed down the lane toward the basket. But instead of shooting, he immediately made a no-look touch pass to Jones streaking in on the wing for a dunk. "Before Magic came back, E.C. probably takes the shot, and maybe he makes it, maybe he doesn't, but he probably doesn't make the pass," said Divac after the loss to Seattle. 'That comes from Magic setting the tone."
It is the kind of tone Johnson tried but failed to set in his 17-game stab at coaching the Lakers two seasons ago. He finds it much easier to get his points across while wearing a uniform. "They can tune you out as a coach, but not when you're a player and you're kicking their butt in practice," Johnson says. "See, I can tell Elden something about rebounding when I'm holding a whistle and a clipboard, and he'll probably remember it for a little while, but if I tell him something about rebounding after I've just taken a rebound from him, then he'll remember it for good."
To watch Johnson as he plays so effectively is to realize why he clung so tenaciously to his dream of a comeback. "I knew that I could still make a difference just with what I had up here," he says, tapping his temple. "I understand this game. I understand the angles of it, the little nooks and crannies of it." Johnson has pared his style to the point where not a single movement is wasted, as if he realizes he only has so many strides and jumps left in his career. And he has had to make other concessions to age. A calf injury that forced him to miss four games continues to trouble him, and he doesn't have the stamina of his younger years. When he started and played the entire first quarter at Seattle last week, he was winded when he sat down. Coming off the bench to play a maximum of 30 minutes a game seems the perfect role for him, which is one of the reasons why Ceballos's uncertain status was so potentially damaging. His absence played havoc with the Laker rotation and forced Johnson to spend more minutes on the court.
So far those minutes have come mostly at one of the forward positions, but Johnson thinks there is significant time at his old point guard spot in his future. "I think I can have more options and be more dangerous that way," he says. One potential danger, though, is ruffling the feathers of the talented and headstrong Van Exel. But so far Van Exel has adjusted admirably, ceding some of his control of the team to Johnson while losing none of his trademark cockiness. "I know there are a lot of people checking it out to see how I'm going to respond," Van Exel says. "And I know there are probably going to be times when Magic and I are both standing there with our hands out, calling for the ball. Believe me, I'm not going to change my game. Nick is going to be Nick. But I'm not a selfish player, and I know Magic's not. It won't be a problem."
At least it won't be as big a problem as, say, finding a phone was for Ceballos in Arizona.