Johnson shows off sizable changes Extra pounds, muscle haven't hurt game

January 31, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Lakers coach Del Harris calls it "Phase II" of Magic Johnson's career, one that features "this hulk of a man . . . a power player."

There is no question that Johnson, some 27 pounds heavier than he was the last time he was on an NBA court, is a different player than he used to be. Besides being some four years older, he has bulked up with an extensive weight-lifting program that has added visible definition to his arms and upper body.

Before last night's 128-118 win over the Golden State Warriors, Harris was asked if it seemed at all strange to him that one of the best point guards ever was returning to the game as a power forward.

"Yeah, dumb coach, huh?" Harris smiled. "You've got to realize that you're looking at almost two different people."

And the older Magic, 36, still has some work to do on his conditioning.

Johnson, who nearly had a triple double in his first game back, finishing with 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in 27 minutes, said he expected to get fatigued by the NBA pace, which is a bit more furious than that played by his touring all-star team. On several occasions in last night's return, Johnson could be seen laboring to catch his breath.

"I'm not in NBA shape," Johnson said after practicing with the Lakers on Monday.

"I've been out four years. It took Michael [Jordan] a little while, and he was only out a year. The best thing about it is I'm not going to have to dominate the game or anything. With Nick [Van Exel], Cedric [Ceballos] and those guys, we have scorers. . . . it's not like I have to come in and play the same role that I had before."

And in other news . . .

Johnson had an impressive night, but he had help.

Ceballos finished with 33 points, Van Exel had 16 and Elden Campbell 14 for the Lakers, who had 44 assists, the most in the NBA this season.

For the Warriors, Tim Hardaway scored 24 points off the bench, and former Maryland star Joe Smith, who battled Johnson at both ends of the floor, had 23 before fouling out with 1:43 left.

A part-owner no more

To comply with an NBA rule that prohibits players from owning all or part of their teams, Johnson had to sell back his 5 percent share of the Lakers to team owner Jerry Buss.

Asked whether he plans to become a part-owner again, Johnson said: "I hope to. I thought I was a good part-owner. I kept my mouth shut, and just collected checks."

Given Johnson's close relationship with Buss, it's assumed that he'll be offered the chance to buy back his slice of the pie upon the once-and-for-all conclusion of his playing career. But according to Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent and business adviser, there is no gentleman's agreement in place for such a transaction.

"There's no understanding, there can be no understanding [by rule]," Rosen said.

Besides, Rosen added, there are potential variables.

"The team might increase in value," he said. "He may decide to buy a whole team. I think he'd rather have a whole team.

"Does he have the money? He can buy a whole team. He could come up with the money for that."

Semi-retired jersey

Although he wore it on his uniform, Johnson's "retired" jersey No. 32 remained on the Forum's wall of fame, next to those of James Worthy (42), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33), Jerry West (44), Wilt Chamberlain (13) and Elgin Baylor (22).

A Lakers spokesman said the club saw no reason to take it down.

Marketing magic?

Johnson always has been among the most popular superstars, but the stigma of the AIDS virus made him an advertising outcast. As he returns four years later, have times changed?

Spalding Sports Worldwide, which has had Johnson under contract since 1980, stopped selling inexpensive rubber basketballs with his name a year after he retired. It's considering making a $100-plus Johnson commemorative ball, like those from All-Star Games, said John Doleva, Spalding's managing director for leisure products.

Given the goodwill in Los Angeles among fans who remember the Lakers' "Showtime" glory days, regional advertisers might find a Johnson tie-in to be, well, magic, marketing executives say.

But regional ads, "tools of the trade" ads for basketballs and self-promotion, are quite different from major campaigns for mainline companies.

Most experts are skeptical about the Johnson's prospects for national ad campaigns.

"It's not so much the issue of HIV and AIDS," said Stephen Disson, whose D&F Group in Washington, D.C., arranges sports tie-ins for clients such as AT&T, Visa, Kodak and Marriott. "It's how Magic was so outspoken about how promiscuous he was and all of his escapades. That just opens up a whole can of worms."

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