A dream matchup for Smith Ex-Terp gets to guard his childhood idol

January 31, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Joe Smith first wore No. 32 as a sophomore in high school. He wore it because his favorite player was Magic Johnson.

"He was always my main guy, even when he retired," Smith said last night. "It almost brought me to tears."

Smith, 20, was a junior in high school when Johnson left the NBA on Nov. 7, 1991. He never imagined that one day he would guard his idol.

It happened last night, when Johnson made his comeback for the Los Angeles Lakers against Smith and the Golden State Warriors.

Johnson entered the game 2 minutes, 21 seconds into the first quarter, and lined up next to Smith for a foul shot.

"I wanted to shake his hand, I wanted to cheer with the fans," the former Maryland star said after the Lakers' 128-118 victory.

"When he came out, I was like, 'Is this a dream? Is this for real?' "

Johnson's first shot was a hook over Smith that fell short, and that began an evening-long battle between two players born 16 years apart.

"The first time, it was kind of neat," Smith said. "Then I realized I had to stop the guy. Later on, it became and harder and harder."

Smith fouled out, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Johnson finished with 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

Johnson later described it as the most exciting day of his life. Smith said it was one of the most nerve-wracking.

Smith said he never saw Johnson play in college -- he was a toddler when Johnson was at Michigan State. But he grew up a Lakers fan in Norfolk, Va.

He was 4 when Johnson won his first NBA title with the Lakers in 1980. He was 11 when Johnson was named MVP of the NBA Finals for the third time.

"The first time I met him was last year at the Maui tournament," Smith said, referring to his sophomore season at Maryland.

"He came over and watched us play. I got a chance to be videotaped with him, me and a couple of teammates. It was one of the best experiences I had in college."

Last night was one of his most memorable experiences in the pros. Smith, nicknamed "Simba" by teammate Jon Barry, entered the game averaging 14.8 points, more than Charles Barkley did as a rookie.

He was named NBA Rookie of the Month for December, and finished January with averages of 17.5 points and 9.8 rebounds. Against Johnson, he was in his usual position, matched up against a bulkier power forward.

The 6-foot-10 Smith had a one-inch height advantage, but he weighs 225 pounds -- 30 fewer than the bulked-up Johnson.

"Magic, he has a special talent," Smith said before the game. "You just don't know what to expect. I know that he's in pretty good shape, been working out and everything. And I know he'll do whatever it takes to win."

Smith, like everyone else, first heard talk of a Johnson comeback last week. He didn't say anything to him during the game, but said Johnson asked him if he planned to spend the summer back home in Virginia.

It was a special night, for Joe Smith, for everyone.

Smith, the No. 1 pick in last year's NBA draft, approached the game with typical humility.

"If I've never been on the highlights before," he said, "I will be now."

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