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Earvin Johnson, the Michigan State Magic Man whose exuberance and sleight-of-hand did so much to make college basketball particularly enjoyable last season, was lying on the floor of his East Lansing apartment, wiggling his toes in the green shag carpeting and pondering where he will play next year—the Big Ten, Moscow or the NBA. Here he was enjoying himself so much—and the pros were strongly urging that he get down to business. "Funny, isn't it?" he said.
The problem is that the 19-year-old sophomore with the omnipresent smile feels that everything is perfect in his life right now. Therefore, all things considered, he might just as well play college basketball for two more years and keep discoing down at The Bus Stop, playing pool at the student union, drinking strawberry daiquiris and buying records at the Lansing Mall. Is there any state that is better than perfect?
The pros think so. Thus, Magic's dilemma: dollars vs. Olympic gold and the possibility of a college degree.
On one side are the professionals, armed with money, an old weapon that has worked well over the years. Johnson's price tag is still facedown, but the realistic estimates of those closest to him see numbers like $500,000 a year for five years. That figure would put him among the top 10 pro players. One general manager says $300,000 a year for five would be more realistic, but that probably won't wash in Magic's mind because he turned down $250,000 a year for six years from Kansas City in 1978 and he'll likely consider a $50,000-a-year boost insultingly small. A $2 million, five-year offer might hook him, however. Teammate Greg Kelser, who completed his eligibility this year and will be a high first-round draft pick himself, says, "If I was in Johnson's place, I might leave."
All of which has East Lansing in an uproar only a few decibels lower than that of the celebration accompanying State's victory in last month's NCAA championship. An East Lansing motel marquee says, "If you believe in Magic, welcome." Superfan Duane Vernon hyperbolizes, "Every member of the team is a hero, but Magic is a legend." At the least Johnson is a walking mob scene, an autograph party gone berserk. These are heady days, for at last, at last, long-suffering Spartans have something really good in which to rub the noses of those snooty winners at the University of Michigan. More than anyone, Johnson understands all this; he loves all this. But no later than May 11 he must decide if he will forego Michigan State, declare himself a hardship case and thereby become eligible for the pro draft, which will be held June 25.
There is talk—mostly from the optimists—that Johnson will stay at State for one more year. Then he could go hardship in the spring of 1980, play on the U.S. basketball team in the Moscow Olympics—unless there is an adverse ruling by international Olympic officials—and then join the NBA team that drafted him. Reason and logic, however, leave little doubt that he will turn pro. And that, according to Johnson watchers, may mean that he won't. "Earvin thrives on intrigue," says Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote.
There are only three people directly involved in making the decision. One is Charles Tucker, a psychologist for the East Lansing school district who had try-outs with a couple of ABA teams. Tucker has known Earvin for years, and he says, "Opportunity comes once, and you can throw it away so fast. But if Earvin only cared about money, he'd have been gone last year." Tucker insists he wants none of Earvin's cash.
Then there is Magic's father, Earvin Sr. He makes $20,000 a year as a night relief worker in an Oldsmobile body plant, plus several thousand more hauling trash and working as a janitor. Mrs. Johnson brings home another $10,000 from her job as a junior high school cafeteria worker. Their 10 kids take it all and a little bit more. Yet, Earvin Sr. assesses his son's situation by saying, "If he gets the right offer, he'll go pro this year. I'd say $500,000 a year for four years. Wouldn't you say that's about right? At least that much. He may not be any good, but he'll sure bring excitement."
And then there's Earvin Jr., who says, "I don't need a lot of opinions. I can listen to myself."
There is a definite feeling that of the three, Earvin Sr. is the key. After all, when Magic was deciding which university to attend, he leaned toward Michigan; the old man wanted Michigan State. When Magic wanted to go for the pro bucks last year, his father led the opposition. So these days, when Earvin Sr. says, "I think that he's as ready as he'll ever be to play pro ball," his utterances get respect and special attention.