In his return, Johnson has no Magic answer

March 24, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- What happens two weeks from now, if Nick Van Exel or George Lynch barks back at the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers the way the new coach barked back at Paul Westhead in 1981 or Pat Riley in 1986?

"There's no question I will take all the suggestions I can get," said Magic Johnson, five-time NBA champion, all-time assist leader, Dream Teamer and now coach of the Lakers. "I don't know it all . . . but it's definitely going to be my way, or you'll be taking a seat on the bench."

Besides expanding the game's popularity, Johnson wielded some mighty influence -- he apparently helped get Westhead fired -- and now he'll get another angle on his legacy.

Johnson replaces Randy Pfund, who was fired after taking a young team to a 27-37 record. Assistant coach Bill Bertka coached the Lakers to a 112-109 win last night in Dallas and will coach the team in Houston tonight.

"We wanted to get a win for coach Bertka," the Lakers' George Lynch said last night in Dallas. "We also wanted to perform knowing Magic was watching us on TV at home."

Johnson's debut as an interim coach will come Sunday against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Great Western Forum, 15 years and a day after his Michigan State team beat Larry Bird and Indiana State in the most-watched NCAA final ever.

His effervescence and resourcefulness were burned into the nation's sporting conciousness that day, and it's an image that mostly has held up through his retirement after he was found to have the virus that leads to AIDS.

Johnson announced he was HIV-positive on Nov. 7, 1991, speaking from the same podium where he yesterday said he'll coach the final 16 games of the regular season, only as a favor to owner Jerry Buss. Johnson wouldn't speculate on whether it was a dress rehearsal for next season or whether he'll be getting a piece of the team.

"I guarantee you he [Johnson] will need ownership to go beyond this season," said Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent. "I can't put a percentage on it. He wants to own a basketball team. The only way he'll continue is to have ownership. He's here as a pinch-hitter, helping out Jerry Buss. They are very loyal to each other."

"The one thing that's different from me and the other coaches is that I'm set for life," Johnson said. "I'm not relying on it to make a living. I'm doing this for free."

Technically, Johnson isn't being paid to coach, but published reports say that the Lakers will pay him $2.5 million this season and $14.6 million next year.

His return as coach has been rumored the past two years. Johnson turned down an offer last summer to coach the Atlanta Hawks.

"He [Buss] didn't ask until now," Johnson said. "He said, 'We're going to make a change, and would you like to be a part of the change?' It's a perfect time for me, a perfect time for the players."

Regarding his health, Johnson said he has maintained an active pace barnstorming with Magic's All-Stars.

"I feel great," Johnson said. "If I wasn't, I wouldn't be doing this. I've been on tour the last five months. I'm doing more with my life now than I did before I had the virus. This will send a message to people with HIV and AIDS, of course."

Minus Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other members of the team that won five NBA titles from 1980 to 1988, the Lakers are on the verge of playoff elimination. They've been criticized recently by Johnson for a lack of pride.

Just as important in Los Angeles, they lack a star. Jack Nicholson hasremained faithful, but average attendance at the 17,505-seat Forum is 11,012, and there have been only two sellouts.

"This decision was made because it's something he [Johnson] truly wants to do," West said to suggestions that the hiring is a gimmick. "Obviously, when you have a personality and someone who's captured the imagination of the fans, that helps. But there are only a few games left in the regular season, and better attendance at them isn't going to change our financial structure."

Johnson will be reunited on the bench with longtime teammate Michael Cooper, who is replacing assistant coach Chet Kammerer.

Another former teammate, Lakers forward James Worthy, is still with the team.

"Obviously, like everyone else, I was shocked," Worthy told the Associated Press. "Nothing surprises me anymore, however. It's not the firsttime I've experienced something like this. That's part of the business.

"But my job doesn't change. He was pretty much a coach on the floor when I played with him."

Fans seeking Lakers tickets congregated outside the Forum on a day when Johnson overshadowed Wayne Gretzky and the teams who'll play in the NCAA's Sweet 16 tonight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Those fans aren't the only ones who want to see Johnson play again. "I'd be a liar if there's a minute to go in a tight game and I said I don't want to get that No. 32 jersey on," said Johnson.

"Of course, I miss the game," Johnson said. "It's hard to say I won't be tempted. Instead of talking about playing, I'll be able to show them in practice, but I'm a coach now. On our tour, I've been making speeches before games and diagramming plays during timeouts. I feel good that I can do this."

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