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A few years ago—even last season—it wouldn't have been unusual to see a fan taking a snooze at courtside during a Los Angeles Lakers game in The Forum, where the chilly reserve of the crowds usually runs about 10� below body temperature.
Ah, but that is the past. Things are warming up now, and by last week the long nights of ennui and frustration were but a grim and distant memory at the once-again-Fabulous Forum, where the Lakers had won nine of 10 games and were clearly enjoying life in the fast-break lane. The new-look Lakers had replaced the no-look, no-luck, old-look Lakers, and nowhere was the change more brightly apparent than in the beaming kisser of Earvin (Magic) Johnson Jr.
After being selected No. 1 in the college draft last June at the age of 19, Johnson, who as a sophomore had led Michigan State to the 1978-79 NCAA championship, went west and became simply Magic, both upper and lower case. If he is as good as his first month in the league seems to promise, at the ripe old age of 20 he may just be capable of helping the Lakers win the 1980 NBA title.
Johnson was never more typically Magic than in last Friday's 126-122 overtime victory over Denver. Despite blowing three fairly easy shots as the Lakers plodded through the first quarter, Johnson scored an NBA career-high 31 points—hitting 10 of 16 shots from the field, including eight straight baskets during the Lakers' game-winning rally—passed for eight assists and grabbed six rebounds. More than that, he and Norm Nixon, L.A.'s other outstanding young guard, had cranked up the fast-break game in the second half. "When we started running, my confidence started to rise," said Magic. "That's when I knew it was time to deal on some people. When we're rolling and the break is going, I guess it looks like I am performing magic out there. There are some nights I think I can do anything." He stopped for a moment and his soft brown eyes widened. "You really have to love the game to play that way, though," he said. "You can't be afraid to let your emotions out in front of 13,000 people."
That is a fairly breathtaking statement, considering the fact that if the entire emotional content of one of the Lakers' recent seasons were on film, it could be screened during one cycle of the 24-second clock. But anyone who has seen Johnson play can tell you that despite all his raw skills, it is the sheer force of his personality that accounts for his particular genius. "Magic's greatest asset is his enthusiasm, the way he can lift his team up," says Donnie Walsh, coach of the Nuggets.
"He really is magic," says Guard Brian Taylor of San Diego. "He's got great charisma. It's fun just to watch someone who can get the ball to his teammates when they're open. There are a few other players in the league who can do that, but what makes Magic special is the way he brings his own personality to it."
Golden State Coach Al Attles was so concerned about the hypnotic effect of Johnson's passing that during practice one day last week he warned his team, "Don't get mesmerized by Magic." Even after Johnson's least inspired performance of the week in a 126-109 loss to the Warriors, Attles remained impressed. "There are two types of passers," he said. "The first kind can make a pass that looks good but doesn't lead to anything; the second can get the ball to a teammate when he's in a position to do something with the ball. Magic is the second kind."
A day earlier, in a game against San Diego, Johnson had scored 18 points, pulled down nine rebounds and dealt out eight assists without committing a turnover. In the third quarter, when the Lakers were in the process of widening a five-point advantage to 12 points en route to a 127-112 win, Johnson had stood near midcourt and fired a pass between two Clippers to Laker Forward Jim Chones underneath the basket. Magic had not seemed to notice Chones, and, for that matter, Chones was buried so deep in traffic that he didn't really consider himself to be open. When the ball came whistling through the jerseys and into Chones' hands, he regarded it suspiciously and then dumped it into the basket. As he trotted down the floor, Chones shook his head in disbelief. "Magic sees angles a lot of guards don't see," he says, "and he gives you the ball in the rhythm of your move so you can go right up with it."
As any magician knows, the illusion of perfection is achieved only after a succession of awkward failures, and Johnson was less than spectacular in the Lakers' preseason workouts as he adjusted to his new surroundings. "During training camp I just watched my new teammates and tried to pay attention to their tendencies," he says. "If I'm going to throw a no-look pass, I want to be sure somebody's going to be there to catch it. A lot of times I messed up because I thought somebody would be somewhere they weren't, or because they thought I couldn't see them when they were open. I hit a lot of people in the face at first and I got a lot of turnovers, but I just worked at it until I got it right."
Johnson is one of seven new players in Laker uniforms this season, a statistic that makes Los Angeles' strong start all the more impressive. Former Portland Assistant Jack McKinney, in his first season as a head coach in the pros, wasted no time putting distance between his team and L.A. teams of the past. Spencer Haywood was acquired from Utah to become the Lakers' rebounding forward; then, when Chones, who was with Cleveland, became available, he supplanted Haywood in the starting lineup along with becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's backup. McKinney's most important selling job was persuading Nixon to give up his playmaking role and adjust to working most of the time without the ball. Magic, despite his many virtues, does not run well without the ball and often seems to lose his concentration when he is not directing traffic.