Earvin Johnson Jr. comes dribbling up the floor, cleverly keeping the ball away from a hounding defender. That's Earvin—not Irvin or Irving or Elvin or Elvis. Earvin Johnson, the hot prospect from Lansing, Mich. Zap! The ball has disappeared from his hands and materialized in the grasp of a Michigan State teammate under the hoop. Two points.
Here he is again at the top of the key, looking one way and flinging the ball another—to a streaking teammate one step ahead of his man. Two more points.
Hey, wait a minute. The program says this magician is 6'8", 200 pounds. Can it be that Michigan State has a 6'8" freshman bringing the ball up court and playing point guard most of the time? Oops, here he comes again. He pauses briefly in the vicinity of the free-throw line, and then, zip! drives down the middle, gives a dipsy-doodle, herky-jerky Dr. J move and lays it in. Another two points.
Sure enough, Michigan State has a multitalented newcomer who passes, scores, rebounds, dribbles and, as if to assure the world that nobody is perfect, admits that he has heard rumors of a thing called defense but is not quite sure what it is. Never mind. The Spartans play a zone to hide Johnson's and other players' deficiencies, and figure that by scoring a healthy number of points of their own, everything will work out okay. It seems to be. With a 12-1 record after last weekend, they are threatening to break into the Top Ten.
Michigan State had a 10-17 record last year under first-year Coach Jud Heath-cote. There are some talented athletes back from that team, notably junior Forward Greg Kelser ( Michigan State's leading scorer and rebounder in 1976-77) and Guard Robert Chapman (a fifth-round NBA draft choice who decided to stay in school), but Johnson is the catalyst that was desperately needed. He and another 6'8" Lansing resident, freshman Center Jay Vincent, have suddenly turned a loser into the favorite for the Big Ten title. At the end of last week, State was the only team unbeaten in conference play.
The class of '81 is an exceptional one all across the country, and so far it seems that Johnson is its brightest member, even though others, notably Maryland's Albert King and Duke's Eugene Banks, were more highly publicized as high school seniors. In fact, Johnson, Vincent, Banks, King, USC's Cliff Robinson, Ohio State's Herb Williams and Iona's Jeff Ruland have the potential to become the finest class ever, surpassing the Jerry West-Oscar Robertson group of '60 and the Pete Maravich-Calvin Murphy- Rick Mount- Bob Lanier class of '70.
Johnson's statistics are startling, although even they do not fully convey the all-round quality of his game. Against Minnesota he scored 31 points and had eight rebounds, four assists and 13 of 15 from the foul line. Two nights later against Wisconsin he had 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Bingo, right out of the blocks, he was Player of the Week in the conference. Last Thursday night at Illinois, in his first Big Ten road game, Johnson had 17 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and four steals, which compared very favorably with his best previous line, against Wichita State: 20 rebounds, 19 points, nine assists.
Johnson, who grew up only a few miles from the huge Michigan State campus, is the son of a Fisher Body worker who emigrated from Mississippi to find a better job. His mother is from North Carolina, where she was a good basketball player. Earvin used to get up early on Sunday mornings, go to Lansing's Main Street School and play full-court one-on-one games against his older brother Larry. He had to learn to dribble, he says, because Larry pressed him baseline-to-baseline all the time.
In about the fourth grade he began encountering Vincent on the playgrounds. When it came time to go to high school, Vincent went to Eastern, while Johnson was bused—initially to his displeasure—to mostly white Everett, which he led to the state Class A quarterfinals as a sophomore, the semis as a junior and the championship as a senior. In one high school game he scored 54 points; in his next he had 16 assists.
If Johnson had not been around, Vincent probably would have been considered the best player in Lansing's history. The two became close friends despite the rivalry, and together they turned a city that had been noted chiefly for the production of Oldsmobiles into a Mecca for college scouts. Vincent chose Michigan State right away, but Johnson waited to decide until after a slew of All-Star games and a trip to Germany to play for the U.S. team in the Albert Schweitzer Games. Before he departed for Europe, he narrowed his potential choice to either Michigan or Michigan State.