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Fran Blinebury

Magic Johnson
Earvin "Magic" Johnson was a blue-collar player with a smile and a style that could light up Hollywood.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Magic all about sheer joy of playing, striving, competing


Posted Sep 3 2011 5:40PM

Magic.

The word conjures up images of flashing lights and puffs of smoke, of tricks performed with the wave of a wand or the simple snapping of fingers.

Magic.

It often referred to the nothing-up-my-sleeve, no-look passes that turned an ordinary basketball game enchanted; the dreamlike way he could seem to make the ball vanish here and reappear there, in the manner of a man in a top hat and cape seeming to walk through a brick wall.

But in the case of Earvin Johnson, Jr., the real magic came from the sheer joy of playing, striving, competing.

"Man, you put the ball in my hand and I'm in another world," he once said. "All my problems are gone as soon as I step out onto the floor and get that feel of the leather in my palm.

"Boom! Boom! Boom! Bounce that ball. Feel it come back up. Just caress it. And I know I can do anything with it. Me and that ball, we belong together. I'm in my own world and it's the greatest feeling in the world."

He was a five-time NBA champion, a three-time MVP, a 12-time All-Star, a nine-time All-NBA First Teamer, near the front of the line when the 50 Greatest Players were chosen and averaged more assists per game (11.2) than any player in history.

Yet the true magic came from the excitement and exuberance that he brought to every trip down the court.

It was there in the very first game he ever played in the NBA, when the Lakers defeated the Clippers and as the horn sounded he ran across the floor and leapt into the surprised arms of a stoical Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, hugging the big man and pumping his first into the air.

"Hey, young fella," Abdul-Jabbar told him. "Remember, these are the pros now and this was only the first of 82 games. It's a long season."

For 13 seasons he treated every one of those games as if it were a gift wrapped in a bow sitting under the Christmas tree. Maybe someone played the game better than Johnson, but nobody ever played in harder, played it smarter. Those wanting to see how the game looks when it's done right needed only to watch Magic play once, watch him play anytime, anywhere. This was one guy who never mailed it in. Ever.

It was there in the last game of that rookie season, when the 6-foot-9 rookie guard filled in for an ailing Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of The Finals and rolled to 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals to beat the Philadelphia 76ers and wrap up the first of the handful of NBA championships he'd win.

It was there in those three epic Finals matchups in the 1980s first against the Boston Celtics and his rival, Larry Bird, and then going toe-to-toe in consecutive Finals showdowns with his close personal friend Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. It was there in the way he recruited, organized and then drove the 1992 U.S. Olympic "Dream Team" to a gold medal effort for the ages.

It was there in frozen February games in Cleveland or Milwaukee, at the end of four games in five nights, anytime or anywhere they opened the gym and turned on the lights.

"I just like to play," Johnson said.

He was already an anomaly and a ground-breaker as a massive point guard when he came out of Lansing, Mich. as a high school star. He then led Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA championship (over Bird and Indiana State) and became the No. 1 pick in the draft by the Lakers.

He was the one responsible for turning Lakers home games into a version of the red carpet walk at the Oscars, a "must-be-seen" location that drew Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington for the basketball and just about every other "A-List" celebrity to share in the warmth of his spotlight.

At a time when Julius Erving was almost single-handedly fanning the flames of dignity and hope alive in a league that had definite image problems, along came Magic, a blue-collar player with a smile and style that could light up Hollywood and make the entire league glow with possibilities.

When you asked a young Johnson if he developed his hard-driving attitude on the playgrounds, he'd shake his head and speak of his father. Earvin Johnson, Sr. worked two jobs, operating the grinding boot at the Fisher Body plant by day and pumping gas at nights.

"I'd like to say it was like death," Magic's father once told him, "but I've never seen death, so maybe it was worse."

Strong words that taught a young man never to take playing a kid's game for a living for granted. Mix it together with an innate intelligence about how to maximize his effect on the game and the result was volatile.

"He knew that if he could make everybody else better, then probably they would produce more," said Hall of Famer Pat Riley, who was his coach through four championship seasons. "If they produced more, then probably the team would win. And if the team won, then he would get exactly what he wanted, which was a championship.

"His gift was that he was a giver. He was a guy who constantly used his skill to help other players become better people and better players ... There are guys who talk and guys who do. And Earvin was always a doer."

The trick was turning a dogged determination, a bone-deep commitment to winning into a happy-go-lucky persona that made everything about his game look so easy when the truth was exactly the opposite. It might have been expected that those who played against him and were victimized by him would have resented the "Magic" aura, maybe couldn't appreciate the substance beneath the flash. But certainly not the man who was the East Coast equal as his peer.

"You can't tell me that Magic Johnson isn't the best basketball player in the world," said Bird in the midst of their careers. "He's the best player I've ever played against, and he's the best player I have ever seen in my life. He does things with the basketball that nobody else can do. There's nobody I'd rather watch play than Magic Johnson."

There might have been more titles to be won and there were definitely more crowd-pleasing fast breaks to run and jaw-dropping passes to make when the magic suddenly was stopped by Johnson's shocking revelation on Nov. 7, 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV and would retire immediately.

He returned to the court to play in the 1992 All-Star Game at Orlando, winning MVP honors, was the inspiration and driving force of the Olympic Dream Team and made a brief comeback (32 games) with the Lakers in the 1995-96 season.

Now, 20 years later, Johnson's enduring legacy from that dark time is the fact that he is still here healthy and happy as a media figure and a highly successful entrepreneur across a broad spectrum of businesses.

But for a basketball generation that went along with him, it will always be about the joyride as he barrels down the court, slices between a couple of defenders, seeing what only he can see, listening to music that only he can hear.

"I'll tell you, if heaven is anything like being on the court with a ball in my hands and the game on my shoulders, I'm gonna love it," Johnson said, "because that's my idea of heaven."

Magic.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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