Thirty minutes after the Los Angeles Lakers had thrashed the San Antonio Spurs 136-116 last Friday night at The Forum, Magic Johnson felt not only relieved and vindicated but just plain good, too. He had scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out 16 assists, had three steals and one block—and had turned boos to cheers. More important, at least from his point of view, he was having fun again.
"Yeah, I'm happy and so are him and him and him," Johnson said, gesturing toward the empty lockers of teammates Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose happiness votes, if Magic's words were taken at face value, evidently had been proxied to him. "This is the way it was two years ago, those eeeasy buckets. You see the way we were moving tonight? Pow-pow-pow. See the way Kareem was handling the ball out there? When he gets into that mood, whew!"
But no one's mood had been as closely watched this night as Johnson's. How's that? Wasn't this the player whose ebullient personality as much as his extraordinary skills had turned Michigan State into an NCAA champion in 1979 and the Lakers into NBA title-winners the next year—when he might have been a 20-year-old college junior? But of late he wasn't having fun anymore. Sure, the Lakers were still an exciting team, and, sure, they were in the midst of a winning streak that would stretch to seven straight by last weekend. Still, until the defeat of the Spurs, Magic hadn't been finding 1981-82 anywhere near as enjoyable as 1979-80. So, for the misdemeanor of making Johnson and his buddy, Laker owner Jerry Buss, unhappy by creating an unimaginative offense—one in which, according to Magic, the team wasn't getting enough shots—Coach Paul West-head was fired and replaced by his assistant, Pat Riley, with former Laker Coach Jerry West coming on to coach the offense. Certainly there were no sound basketball reasons for the change.
Two nights before, after the Lakers had beaten the Utah Jazz 113-110 for their fifth straight victory, Westhead had met with Johnson to express his displeasure over what he called a "lack of concentration on Magic's part." That reportedly meant that either Johnson hadn't listened to Westhead during a time-out late in that night's game or had failed to run a play to the coach's satisfaction. In the locker room after that meeting, Johnson told the press that he couldn't play under Westhead's system anymore and that he wanted to be traded. After the Lakers arrived back in Los Angeles the next morning, Buss called a press conference, and Westhead was gone, with the remaining three years of his four-year, $1.1 million contract guaranteed.
Before last week it was hard to imagine anything more unlikely than Johnson causing his coach to be fired. After all, he's the love-everybody kid whom all of L.A. had taken to its heart when he had almost singlehandedly beaten the Philadelphia 76ers in the sixth and deciding game of the 1980 NBA finals. Abdul-Jabbar was hurt and didn't make the trip east, so the 6'9" Johnson, moving from guard to center—with a 37-point boost from Wilkes—took things into his own hands: 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and an NBA title. After the game, Johnson told a national TV audience that this one was for Kareem: "Hey, big fella, we'll be dancing on the plane for you."
Johnson missed 45 games last season with a left knee injury but came back with a month to go, and all seemed right with the Lakers—until they were upset in a playoff mini-series with Houston. Johnson took the shot on the Lakers' last play in that defeat and came up with nothing but air. That was no fun.
About two months later, Buss made a shocking announcement: He had signed Johnson to a 25-year, $25 million contract starting in 1984. Barely a month after Abdul-Jabbar heard about that deal he was in Buss's office demanding that the owner regain his senses. Surely you can't be serious, Jerry. Magic's a great kid and a terrific player, but with that kind of money, nobody's going to be able to talk to him—not even the coach.... Abdul-Jabbar was assuaged, but the seeds of discord had been planted.
Came the new season, and Johnson immediately showed that Abdul-Jabbar's fears were well founded. Seems the 42-year-old Westhead, a coach with 11 years of experience in the college and pro game, felt he had the prerogative to install 25 or 30 new plays, many of which were designed to get the ball in to the center, a fellow by the name of Abdul-Jabbar. An opening-night double-overtime loss to those pesky Rockets on national TV didn't set well with Buss, even though a desperation three-point shot by Johnson had sent the game into the first overtime. By the sixth game, an embarrassing 128-102 defeat at San Antonio on Nov. 10, which dropped L.A.'s record to 2-4, Buss had had enough. "There was a lack of excitement on offense that I wanted to see," he would say later. "I want to see a fluid team on the floor. I enjoyed 'Showtime' [the L.A. media's and Buss's word for exciting play] and I want to see it again...I'm speaking as much as a fan as anything else."
Through the Lakers' first 11 games, Johnson averaged 17.4 points, three steals and a league-leading 10 assists—but he wasn't enjoying himself. "I'm here to play ball and have fun, and that hasn't been happening," he said early Friday afternoon. "I'm not here to get anyone fired. I'm not management, I'm just a player like everyone else. I run laps and get fines, too."
That's vintage Magic, which is why it's so hard to believe he actually precipitated Westhead's firing. But if he did—and only he and Buss know for sure—he has undergone an abrupt transformation: The 20-year-old who had the ability to make everyone smile just by walking into a room, onto a court or into a 7-Up commercial has turned into a greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old.