Jordan, Johnson confine their rivalry to the court

June 04, 1991|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHICAGO -- About 18 months ago, there was speculation about a one-on-one showdown between superstars Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan on pay-per-view television with millions of dollars at stake.

The NBA, protective of its television interests, would not lend its official sanction, however, and the duel of the league's twin peaks was put on hold.

"It's going to happen one day, but not before we're each guaranteed $40 million," said Johnson.

"Right now, Michael and I have a major joint business venture in mind, and we've cooperated on charity events. I'm sure we'll be doing a number of things together down the road."

The idea that Jordan and Johnson would work in harmony would have seemed unlikely six years ago, when Johnson already had established himself as the NBA's premier point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers and Jordan, a rookie with the Chicago Bulls, was elevating the game to new heights.

Their basketball relationship began shakily, though. Perhaps petty jealousies were involved, with old pros trying to teach a flamboyant rookie some court manners.

In any case, Jordan had said that he was the target of a conspiracy by Johnson and his close friend Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons to humble him in the 1985 All-Star Game. The incident reportedly was triggered when Jordan, under the advice of his sports agents, wore his Nike warm-ups instead of his NBA uniform in the dunk contest.

As the story goes, Thomas froze Jordan out of the East's offense and Johnson, playing for the West, roughed him up defensively. A shaken Jordan finished his All-Star debut with seven points on 2-for-9 shooting.

"That was the most hurting thing in my whole career," Jordan said. "A lot of things came out of that game, and it was hard to gain a sense of trust with the others involved."

But time and understanding apparently have healed wounded feelings, and Johnson and Jordan now share respect and friendship.

"I heard all the rumors, most of them coming from my former agent [Charles Tucker], and I knew I had to do something to clear the air," Johnson said yesterday, as he prepared for tomorrow night's second game with the Bulls in the NBA Finals.

"We just didn't know each other. We had to get away from the media and get to know each other man-to-man. Once we sat down and talked things out, Michael and I became good friends.

"We could have hated each other over trivialities, but that was senseless. He might get a bigger shoe contract, but we were both making huge sums through endorsements. There was no basis for jealousy, on or off the court."

Jordan said: "We got off to a rocky start, but now that's all behind us. The only thing that makes me jealous of Magic is his five championship rings."

Off the court, each functions as a one-man conglomerate. Jordan, 28, has a $3 million-a-year playing contract -- which accounts for less than 20 percent of his annual income -- from lending his name to sneakers, soft drinks, cereal and sandwiches.

From Nike alone, Jordan will gross close to $12 million. He had Jordan Universal Marketing Productions in operation before Bo Jackson made his first national commercial.

Johnson has lucrative contracts with Nintendo, Converse and Kentucky Fried Chicken that total more than $10 million. A year ago, he made a sizable investment in a Pepsi bottling plant outside Washington.

He has staged Janet Jackson concerts and charity basketball events for the United Negro College Fund, raising more than $3 million last year.

"The money I make from the Lakers compared to my outside income is relatively small," he said.

He separates his basketball life from his corporate image, saying, "People know Magic, but they don't know Earvin."

Earvin Johnson, 32, said he knows what he wants to do with his post-athletic career. He has set his sights on obtaining an NBA franchise, whether it is the Lakers or an expansion team.

"I've always been a great fan, examining everyone's stats in the papers," he said. "I'd still be a fan even without a team, But if I'm going to games, why not watch my own team?"

That idea seems foreign to Jordan, who plans to divorce himself from basketball once his playing days are over.

Jordan said he wants to be remembered by fans for what he

achieved at the peak of his career.

"I learned what they did to Dr. J [Julius Erving] at the end of his career," he said. "They whispered he could no longer play. I don't want to be put in that same position."

Instead, Jordan, a golf enthusiast with a low handicap, has ambitions of joining the professional tour by 1996.

For the moment, however, Johnson and Jordan have put their stock portfolios and ambitions aside. As Johnson put it: "This is great. Everyone wants to see two marquee names go at it. But, behind all that, you have two guys who want to win more than anything else."

THE 1991 NBA FINALS

L.A. Lakers 93, Chicago Bulls 91

Tomorrow, at Chi., 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Friday, at Lakers, 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Sunday, at Lakers, 7 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

June 12, at Lakers, 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

June 14, at Chi., 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

June 16, at Chi., 7 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

* -- if necessary.

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