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McKinney, who suffered a head injury last Thursday when he fell from a bicycle he was riding near his home, was in "serious but stable" condition at week's end. Before his accident, he made no secret of his respect for his prized rookie. Two weeks ago, in fact, when McKinney called time out with the score tied and less than 30 seconds to play against Phoenix, he ordered a play designed to get the ball to Forward Jamaal Wilkes, only to allow himself to be talked into giving Magic the final shot. The person who made the suggestion, of course, was Johnson, and McKinney's judgment was redeemed when Magic was fouled with six seconds remaining and won the game with two free throws.
"The Lakers of the past few years, because they didn't have a wealth of fast, ball-handling guards, had to slow the ball down and milk what they had, which was Kareem, Jamaal and Adrian Dantley," says McKinney. "Because those three are basically quiet people, the Lakers' style was not very exciting, and they became a bland, quiet team.
"The first thing Magic brought to us was a lot more enthusiasm and excitement, and I think that has been infectious. Also, when you get a new player as heralded as Magic was, it helps if he spends all night trying to pass the ball to his teammates. We envisioned him being a terrific leader and ball handler, and with his size we figured he'd be particularly adept at getting the ball in to Kareem. We never thought of him as a scorer, but when he started playing in all-star games against other NBA players over the summer he scored 30 or 40 points a game. That's when we began to realize the full extent of his potential."
At Michigan State last season Johnson averaged only 17 points, and he seemed certain to score even less than that in the pros. In fact, the opposite has been true, probably because the NBA's 24-second clock forces more running than is commonly seen in college competition, and Johnson is an absolute master of the transition game. After 12 games—he missed three with a knee sprain—he was averaging 20.3 points and hitting 55.5% of his field-goal attempts, mostly taken near the basket, where he has been able to make good use of his height, which is 6'8�", and his long arms, which are ridiculous.
With the score 88-88 against Denver, Magic picked off a pass from David Thompson to Tom Boswell. He threw his right arm out as if he were casting for marlin. Reeling the ball in, he launched himself down the court in a blur of elbows and knees. When he reached the free-throw line at the other end of the floor, he feinted to his left, added an almost imperceptible hitch to his dribble, and then crashed between two defenders as he uncoiled a soft bank shot that settled into the nets for two points.
"He's so young and he has so much enthusiasm for the game that it affects the whole team," says Chones, now in his eighth pro season. "We've all got enthusiasm, but if some of the older guys had that much I think we'd burn up in about 25 minutes." If one veteran Laker in particular has been noticeably more animated this season, it has been Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem reported to training camp more muscular than ever and has occasionally lunged after loose balls this season with an abandon that, while not really reckless, has been mostly absent from his game since he was in Milwaukee five seasons ago. "Kareem has proved everything there is to prove individually," says McKinney, who was an assistant coach at Milwaukee when Abdul-Jabbar was there. "I think as long as we're doing the things it takes to win, he knows now it doesn't have to be Kareem every night."
Once the season had begun, it didn't take long for fans to start wondering if the Lakers were now Kareem's team, or Magic's. The answer probably is that the team was never Kareem's to lose, that he had remained so aloof from past Laker squads that those teams had never had any emotional focus. "It's not Kareem's way to be jumping up and down all the time," says Nixon, "but you can tell he's more enthusiastic now."
Johnson had read the stories about Abdul-Jabbar's increasing boredom with the game and had reported to the Lakers with a certain amount of apprehension. "Kareem represents the franchise," says Magic, "so I guess I wanted to be accepted by him more than anybody else. I had heard that he was unemotional, that he didn't work hard. But the stories I heard weren't true—he cracked jokes, he got mad, and he worked hard. The guy has got feelings."
Keeping Abdul-Jabbar happy and interested should be no problem, with Johnson and his nuclear smile in Laker land. But who will keep Magic happy? Never fear, the kid amuses himself. "I'm going to keep on smiling because that's how I live," he says. "When I get up in the morning I'm grateful to see the sun. I'm just going to go on being happy old Earvin because that's what people seem to like. And it's fun to be liked, the funnest thing of all."