"He's just one guy," Abdul-Jabbar would say. "He's special—he has great instincts and ability—but we're a team." Other Lakers said that the team could indeed win without Magic; it was Abdul-Jabbar they could never afford to lose.
Nonetheless, without their spiritual leader, the Lakers just weren't the same outfit. Without Magic, they could probably forget about becoming the first NBA team in 12 years to win back-to-back titles.
Even though he was still three weeks away from playing form. Johnson rejoined the team for practice on Feb. 2 and accompanied the Lakers on three road trips. His presence lifted everyone's spirits immediately. "I was pleased with the way we carried on without him," says Westhead. "But when Magic wasn't with us our performance—in practices, games, trips—was surgical: neat, clean, minimal talking, no nonsense. But when Magic returned it was like Looney Tunes. He created havoc. Everybody started laughing again. It was unreal."
The final road trip—Chicago and Milwaukee—took its toll on Johnson. He was besieged by reporters and asked the same questions over and over again: Was the knee all right? Would he be the same Magic? Would the team, now playing well without him, have to readjust? Did the other players resent all the attention that was being directed to a non-playing member? "What do you think?" said Johnson, in T shirt and jeans and not smiling, waving to a roomful of ignored uniformed Lakers. In practice that last afternoon in Milwaukee, Magic had passed his final test: as he matched up against bruising Mark Landsberger in a full-court two-on-two game, the exercise disintegrated into an ugly shouting match. "Everybody had finally had it," says Assistant Coach Pat Riley. "That meant only one thing. Magic was ready."
Back in Los Angeles, preparations were made for his return. At The Forum, 17,505 buttons reading "The Magic Is Back" would be distributed, two Magic Johnson Jogging Suits would be awarded to lucky ticket-holders. All over town his face, thirsting for 7-Up, beamed from billboards. His television commercials for the soft drink are a critical success, as is his spot for Buick with Willie Shoemaker. In fact, a new Buick ad is being shot this week and will be aired during the Academy Awards telecast later this month. In Los Angeles Magic Johnson is bigger than Bo Derek, than Steve Garvey, even, and he's making a serious run at Ronald Reagan for popularity. He was forced to darken the windows of his gold Mercedes, he says, for fear of causing accidents when people recognized him on the freeways. "If he keeps his head in perspective much longer, he'll be too wonderful for words," says Riley.
"The thing about Magic that amazes me," says Jamaal Wilkes, "is his timing. He's always at the right place at the right time—in high school, college and the pros. Look at the last playoff game. Everybody remembers it as 'Magic's Game' [Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Lakers beat Philadelphia for the championship while Abdul-Jabbar was out with an injury]. And look at him now, coming back as he is. a month before the playoffs. The spotlight's all his. And nobody on the team resents him at all. We love him. The only athlete I've ever seen who is like him is Ali."
Says Westhead. "Magic's timing is always too good for chance."
When the day finally arrived for Magic to play, though, he admitted, "I'm real scared. Like it's a first game." On the way to the court Friday night, Westhead asked Johnson if he knew Spanish.
"No," said Magic. "Why?"
"There's a word for what I want you to be tonight," said the coach. "Suave, suave. Easy, easy."