His smile lit up whole league, his talents won over generation

MAGIC: ONE MORE ASSIST THE CAREER

November 08, 1991|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

There have been and will be other players whose ability an grace on the hardwood are so special as to be summed up in one name.

Cooz. Wilt. Doc. Kareem. Bird. Jordan.

But there is one who towers above them all.

"Magic."

For, while Bob Cousy and Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are legends of the game, Earvin Johnson Jr. transcended and revolutionized the sport of basketball like no one before.

Johnson was merely the first player in the history of the game who could play any of the five court positions at any given time TC and, as a 6-foot-9 point guard, made the unbelievable seem quite ordinary.

Who else could make bullet bounce passes downcourt into the hands of James Worthy fast breaking in stride and make it look as effortless as rolling a ball down a hill?

Who else could seem to be looking at Pat Riley standing at the Lakers bench or Jack Nicholson sitting with that never-absent leer at halfcourt, while flipping an easy toss across the body to Byron Scott for the jam?

From the time that Lansing, Mich., sportswriter Fred Stabley dubbed him "Magic" as an Everett High School sophomore after one of his earliest triple-doubles, until the shocking news yesterday that he was leaving the game he loved because he had tested positive for the HIV-virus, Johnson left an indelible mark upon the American sports fabric.

His smile, endless enthusiasm and dignified approach to the game and the fans and people who surrounded it were almost as impressive as his performance on the court.

Johnson was never as fast as Tim Hardaway. His gimpy knees and the resulting oft-kilter running style saw to that. Likewise, his rare dunks were never as showy as Dominique Wilkins and he would never beat his pal Bird in a three-point shooting exhibition.

All he could do was win.

In the second game of his high school career, after fouling out of the first game, Johnson contributed 36 points, 18 rebounds, 16 assists and an incredible 20 steals.

"He was only 15 years old, but he just totally dominated the game like I had never seen anyone dominate a high school game before," said Stabley, now the sports information director at Central Michigan University.

It was only the beginning.

At Michigan State, in just two years he took a talented team with future NBA players Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser and taught it how to win, leading the Spartans to a national championship, beating previously undefeated Indiana State and its star, Bird, a longtime nemesis who would later become one of his closest friends.

The next season, at the age of 20, after leaving Michigan State as a sophomore, he was the first player chosen in the NBA draft. Johnson became the last ingredient necessary to give the Los Angeles Lakers only their second championship since the franchise relocated there in 1960.

It was in that first championship series that we first saw on the professional scale the guts and grit of Johnson.

With Abdul-Jabbar felled with a knee injury going into the sixth and ultimately deciding game of the series against Philadelphia, Johnson stepped into the pivot and scored 42 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and handed out seven assists, one of the most sterling championship game performances ever seen.

Johnson eventually became the floor general of coach Pat Riley's "Showtime" fastbreak offense, directing four more championships with the Lakers, including two classic victorious confrontations with Bird and the Celtics.

Just as importantly, it was Johnson and Bird who revitalized and rejuvenated the NBA. Before their arrival in 1979, the league was mired in the perception of rampant drug use and lethargic play. The two of them and their fiercely competitive friendship made it possible for millions of people who had given up on professional basketball to care again.

In 1978-79, the average attendance at an NBA game was 10,822. This past season, it was 15,245. Every NBA player has benefited from the interest Johnson and Bird sparked, with average salaries in the league going from $148,000 in 1978-79 to $900,000 in 1990-91.

For all of Johnson's records and achievements -- including three Most Valuable Player awards, nine designations to the All-NBA first team and 11 trips to the All-Star Game in 12 seasons -- the most significant was emblematic of his approach to life: giving of himself.

In a sport where scoring points is king, Johnson was the monarch of setting his teammates up to score, handing out an all-time high 9,921 assists in regular-season play.

It also seems somehow appropriate that Johnson, who has raised more than $5 million to help keep black college students in school, has pledged to spend this part of his life talking about the virus that took him away from the career of his dreams.

And now, 1,071 games, 21,030 points and millions of smiles later, Earvin Johnson Jr. has hung up his glittery shoes and taken his special brand of magic with him.

We will not soon see his like again.

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