Laker's induction no shock, but still is magic moment

Guard who ran Showtime to step into Hall of Fame

September 27, 2002|By Mark Heisler | Mark Heisler,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - The one, the only, the unforgettable and irreplaceable Magic Johnson is going into the Hall of Fame.

Gee, no kidding.

This one has been on the schedule since that night in 1980 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out and Johnson jumped center in the NBA Finals, getting 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists against the Philadelphia 76ers and leading the Showtime Lakers to the first of five titles.

He was a 20-year-old rookie. Forget the old line about waiving the five-year rule. After that, they could have waived the rest of his career.

Johnson says it showed him he was as good as he hoped. It settled everyone else's doubts too, making this night inevitable, a pleasant (yawn) formality except for the fact this is Magic we're talking about.

He's having his friend and arch-foe Larry Bird present him tonight and gets goose pimples talking about it. Magic's family is thrilled at the honor being bestowed upon him. Magic is thrilled. In this life, even the inevitable is fun. That was the secret of his success, immense as it would be. He was a discipline-transcending genius: at basketball, with people, most of all in life, a never-ending joy for him that he communicated to everyone around him.

He wasn't perfect. He could fire a coach and dribble out the clock in the Finals in Boston. In retirement, he lost his Teflon protection altogether and suffered embarrassments, for revelations about his sex life in his autobiography, for his awkward comebacks, for his brief career as a TV talk-show host. Once the world couldn't get enough of him; now he seemed overexposed.

Yet, unsinkable he was and is. Nothing ever kept him down, not even becoming HIV positive, which may be one reason he could surmount the death sentence that seemed to await him.

"When you think about it, it's not like he wasn't going to get elected," said Memphis Grizzlies general manager and former Lakers standout and executive Jerry West. "He knew he was going to get elected. [But] knowing him, he would be terribly excited, even though he knew he was going to be in there.

"It's a wonderful honor for one of the handful of great players that ever played the game. And he's one of the handful."

A 6-foot-9 point guard, Johnson had size and strength, although he wasn't high on the running/jumping scale. But no one could match his package: the court sense, the wizardry, the poise, the charisma, the will.

"He was unique in almost every way, OK?" West said. "I've seen guys have size advantages - and the Lakers have one now in Shaquille [O'Neal] - but he probably had the greatest size advantage playing his position of anyone I've ever seen. ...

"He just had such a confidence about his ability to make other people better, to make 'em play hard. He started every season with an incredible optimism. More importantly, he started every season an improved player, 'cause he worked so hard on his game in the offseason.

"When I look back at him, my God, what a treat for the city of Los Angeles."

Careers were planned around Johnson. Pat Riley used to say he'd leave when Johnson did (although Magic has been gone a long time and Riley is still coaching). In the fall of '92, when Magic was planning his first comeback, my boss asked if I'd like to become the national NBA writer. I asked to stay on the Lakers' beat, because it was so much fun being around Johnson.

Of course, when Magic called it off during the exhibition season, I went scurrying back to the boss to see if that national job was still open.

It was a transitional period all around but it ended happily, as all Johnson's other periods had. Now he's a business magnate, into movie houses, hamburger stands and soft-drink distributorships, still looking for an NBA team he can run as his very own.

"I don't feel ill," he said last week. "I never have. I still work out every day like I normally do. Everything has been super since Day One. I just had my physical last week and [the doctor] said, `Man, whatever you're doing, just keep it up.' I passed all the tests again. To me, everything is wonderful. Life is wonderful."

His life always has been. Now that you're an all-time great, officially, here's a formal thank you, for the laughs even more than the thrills.

Mark Heisler is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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