For Earvin (Magic) Johnson the One Hundred Days of Solitude were over. The long period of frustration and uselessness—the only such time in the 21 years of his blessed life—ended last Friday night. Johnson trotted onto the court at Los Angeles' sold-out Forum and brought 17,505 Laker fans to their feet. They remained standing and roaring, as it turned out, for 45 seconds, one second for each of the games Johnson had missed since he tore cartilage on the inside of his left knee on Nov. 18.
Johnson waved nervously to the crowd, then broke into that grin—the one that belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records for size and luminescence—and, as the noise grew, he spread his arms, palms up, as if to say, "Why are you people treating me this way? I'm just a basketball player and this is just another game. Against the New Jersey Nets, yet."
His teammates, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, six times the NBA's Most Valuable Player, joined in the ovation, and Laker Coach Paul Westhead seemed to be choking back tears. What was going on here? Just one more magical moment in the phenomenal career of Magic Johnson.
Just as injury is an inevitable adjunct to sport, so is the clichéd comeback. But there are comebacks and there are comebacks. Mickey Mantle folded his leg over his knee backward and came back. Rocky Bleier nearly had his foot blown away by a grenade and came back. Tommy John had his pitching arm reconstructed and came back. All Magic Johnson did was have a small piece of cartilage removed from his knee—a relatively minor procedure as knee operations go—and he is only 21 years old, for heaven's sake.
But the severity of the injury wasn't The Forum crowd's yardstick; it was responding to the persona of Johnson, the man-child who has never failed to live up to his nickname. Last year, his rookie season, he received most of the credit for nudging Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers to the NBA championship. The year before that, as a sophomore at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to the NCAA championship, and in 1977 he led Lansing's Everett High to the Class A Michigan high school championship. He is a great basketball player and has never been anything but a winner, but beyond that he is as appealing as any public figure, perhaps more so.
"I do think about that," says Johnson with a puckish grin. "And...I don't know. I guess I've been blessed. The strength comes from my father, the smile comes from my mother and...well, I just don't know why it's me. It just is. But it was always me, long before I got all this stardom...I mean, attention. I've always had it, and this goes all the way back to the first grade. Ask anybody in Lansing. They all know me."
Thus the injury, which occurred when Atlanta's 7'2½" Tom Burleson fell across the back of Magic's knee on Nov. 11 but wasn't discovered until a week later, during a game with Kansas City, had a devastating effect on Johnson and the team. At the time the Lakers were 15-5. Johnson was averaging 21.4 points (up from his rookie average of 18.0), leading the NBA in steals and assists and out-rebounding all guards with 8.2 per game. Without Magic, the Lakers lost five of their next eight games. But without the Lakers, Magic lost much of his spirit. For the first time he had no team to be part of. He had come face to face with his own athletic mortality.
"It made me see that, just as fast as you can rise to the top, you can come tumbling down," he said last week. "First they take your ball away. That's bad. And then, not being around the guys, that really hurts. I mean, you're alone now, you see. That's my life, being around the fellas, talking jive, singing on the bus, that's the whole thing. All of a sudden that's all taken away. I don't think missing the ball was that important. Missing the fellas was badder than missing the ball."
Westhead, the scholarly 42-year-old coach, knew he had to keep the Lakers from nose-diving, but he also saw Johnson's injury as an opportunity for a little academic study. "I had seriously wondered if Magic was human," he says. "I doubted that he was. The day before his surgery I thought, 'Gee, this guy's going to have surgery just like the rest of us.' The operation was at 8 a.m. on a Monday [Nov. 24], and I wanted to visit him. I didn't want to go too early because he would still be doped up. I figured I'd go around six o'clock and find out what this guy was really like. So I went to the room and the door was closed and I thought, 'Aha! A sign! He's crying and moaning.' I pushed the door open and peeked in and there was Magic propped up in the bed with a Dodger cap on backward, a piece of apple pie shoved up under his face, watching a football game, yelling at his father and a bunch of friends playing cards to keep the noise down. I couldn't believe it. I walked away that night thinking, 'What does this guy have that no one I've ever known has?' I guess he's human, but it's only a guess."
Even before the cast on his knee was removed, Johnson was already working indefatigably on his rehabilitation. He went home to Lansing over Thanksgiving and made two other trips there while away from the team. After their initial slump, the Lakers won five in a row, again lost five of eight, then went 17-7, ending up 28-17 for the 45 games they played without Magic. But it seemed that waiting for Magic was more important to the fans and the press than what the Lakers were doing without him, even though the Lakers had stayed close to Phoenix in second place in the Pacific Division.