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Bruce Newman
May 13, 1985
After his playoff woes of '84, Earvin (Magic) Johnson is under pressure, as the beat picks up this time around
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May 13, 1985

Magic Faces The Music

After his playoff woes of '84, Earvin (Magic) Johnson is under pressure, as the beat picks up this time around

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In fact, Johnson spent most of his rookie season in Los Angeles cowering in his apartment, lonely and overwhelmed by the city. "My first year," he says, "I didn't do nothing, didn't go nowhere." As a 22-year-old millionaire he described to one interviewer the childhood he had grudgingly given up. "Come home from school, got the homework done, I'm gone. Go play," he said. "Oh, I wish so much it could be that way again. You don't know how much I wish it could be that way." By then Johnson was already in retreat from the grown-up world in which, he had found out, even his best intentions seemed to produce only calamity, crisis and controversy.

The Lakers had beaten Philadelphia for the NBA championship in 1980, with a performance by Johnson in the sixth and final game at the Spectrum that should have ended forever any doubts about the rookie's nickname. With Abdul-Jabbar at home nursing a sprained ankle, Johnson, after jumping center to open the game, fashioned a monument to his versatility with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. After that, whenever something bad happened in Lakerland, Magic usually got the blame. "It's going to fall on somebody's shoulders," Magic says. "It just always seems to come back to mine, one way or another."

The first thing to come down on him was the Atlanta Hawks' Tom Burleson, who landed on Magic's left knee early in his second season, eventually forcing him to miss 45 games with torn cartilage. For more than three months Johnson drifted. "It's like you're the Lone Ranger," he says. "It's the most down I've ever been. It brings you down—pow—and things that were going oh-so-good are suddenly oh-so-bad."

Things got oh-so-worse when Johnson came back from the injury five weeks before the start of the 1981 playoffs and was almost immediately reinstated in the starting lineup by Paul Westhead, then the Lakers' coach. The team had played well without Johnson, so it was not so surprising that some of his teammates—Abdul-Jabbar, most notably—were less than enchanted by all the publicity that surrounded his return. "He was blamed for creating a disturbance then, but all he was doing was being himself," says Riley, Westhead's assistant at the time. "People loved him too much, and his teammates couldn't handle it." The Lakers played disastrously while losing the first-round playoff miniseries to Houston, with Johnson—no magic this time—hoisting an air ball in the decisive closing seconds of the final game.

While that wound was still fresh, Lakers owner Jerry Buss rewarded Magic with a stunning 25-year, $25-million contract, then the biggest in all of team sports. (The deal has since been reworked so that Johnson will earn $2.5 million a year for the next nine years.) "That was another one where everyone was waiting for it to be Kareem versus me," Johnson says. Abdul-Jabbar asked for and was granted a meeting with Buss to discuss not his own but Johnson's contract, which was bizarre enough. But then to top that, Abdul-Jabbar held a press conference at which he raised questions about Magic's "favored-child" status with the owner. Abdul-Jabbar also brought up the rather intriguing question of whether Magic's 25-year pair-bonding with Buss made him part of management. Even now there are Laker players who are convinced that Johnson is consulted by management before the team makes any major personnel moves. But did Abdul-Jabbar need to broach the question publicly? "Maybe it was good, because maybe it was lurking in everyone else's mind," says forward Jamaal Wilkes. "But then again, maybe it was just an ego thing." Abdul-Jabbar, who will earn $2 million next year, insists ego had nothing to do with it. "They were giving him all this money and saying, 'Here's the ball, go entertain everybody,' " Abdul-Jabbar says. "They would never have said it, but the unstated thing was not to win, but to entertain."

From Johnson's rookie season, celebrity watchers had wondered whether L.A. could contain the egos of both Magic and Kareem. Even Johnson had been apprehensive. "People had told me so many things about Kareem," he says, "I thought. 'Uh-oh, we're not going to be able to get along.' This has been Kareem's town for a long time, and now all of a sudden there was a new guy coming in. I wasn't out to win the town, I was just here to win. After he saw that, everything was fine. It's still his town." For his part, Abdul-Jabbar says he was pleased to have Johnson around, even though it pained him terribly to be absent when Magic led the team to the '80 championship. It also had to irk Abdul-Jabbar to keep hearing how much Johnson had done to help him. "I think Magic rejuvenated Kareem," says Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe. "At one point I thought Kareem had had it with basketball. He loafed a lot. He plays harder now than he did before Magic was there." Abdul-Jabbar has repeatedly acknowledged that debt. "His playing personality is as far away from being egotistical as you can get," Kareem says. "All he wants to do is get the ball to somebody else and let them score. If you're a big man, it's not hard to like somebody like that."

When Johnson was 11 years old, he and three friends used to stand at the corner of Middle and Williams Streets in Lansing, Mich. on summer nights and sing. "We thought we were really great on My Girl." he says. "We always had to do all the steps—cross your legs, step, kick. And, of course, when it came your turn to sing the part that goes 'my girl,' you had to cross your hands to your shoulders, to cover your heart." These days, when Johnson sings during stretching exercises, his teammates usually want to cover their ears. "No, he can't sing, not at all," says Cooper. "He can hit a few notes, but basically it's an earcracker."

When Magic is really in tune with a game's rhythm, he can turn any play into a riff of beautiful improvisation. During a game at Kansas City in March, he warmed up with a first-quarter fast break on which he was met by a defender at the free-throw line. He dribbled behind his back without breaking stride and dished to Cooper for a layup. A few minutes later he made a pass to Kurt Rambis through heavy traffic while looking toward the arena's ceiling. In the fourth quarter he came charging down the floor on a break, and when a defender once again stepped up to meet him at the foul line, he pirouetted 360 degrees and glided in on stride for the basket. At court-side, Lakers radio announcer Chick Hearn said, "God and all his apostles could not have stopped that move."

God and his apostles were just about the only ones who didn't want to take a bite out of Johnson's backside 11 games into the 1981-82 season when he was blamed for getting Westhead fired. The coach and his point guard had disagreed over how the Lakers' offense should be run, and after an angry exchange in Salt Lake City, Magic told reporters he wanted to be traded. Westhead was fired the following day. Although Johnson contends that other players were just as unhappy with Westhead's offense as he, to date no Laker has ever publicly expressed support for what Johnson did. "Only a few people outside the team knew what really happened," Johnson concedes, "and they weren't saying nothing." Even Riley, who succeeded Westhead, sounds as if he believes Johnson was left to twist slowly in the wind by his teammates. "Magic heard the mutinous attitude, and wondered how long it could go on like that," Riley says. "I think what he said about wanting to be traded was a cry for help. He acted as a spokesman, that's all. Magic's antennae are always out, and the discontented ones go to him. I think there was a lot of pressure put on him by his teammates to say something."

Johnson was booed everywhere the Lakers played for several weeks. In Seattle the fans booed every time he touched the ball. He finished fifth among guards in the balloting for the West All-Star team, the only time, other than his injury season, he failed to make the starting lineup. The Lakers won another championship that season, but for Magic much of the thrill had gone. The booing crushed him, he says now, and the unflattering stories that were written caused him to withdraw so completely that his famous smile took on the vacant look of a death mask. "You watch what you say and do after that," Johnson says. "You watch them as they watch you, and you say to yourself, 'What are they after?' " For the first time, the personalities of Magic and Earvin began to diverge.

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