Magic skips several rungs in his basketball climb

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Perhaps the negative line most often heard in the National BAsketball Association is the one that goes: "No player in this league can get himself up emotionally for all 82 regular season games."

But that was before Earvin (Magic) Johnson signed with the Los Angeles Lakers at age 19. By the time he was 20 Johnson was a full-blown star with outside interests reportedly earning nearly $1 million in his rookie NBA season.

Johnson also has been getting the same kind of national media treatment in the current NBA championship playoffs between Los Angeles and Philadelphia as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. If the Lakers win the playoffs, which resume here Wednesday night with Game 5, Magic will join Bill Russell as the only other player to go directly from a major college championship team to a professional one.

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Although Johnson was not considered a big scorer in his two years at Michigan State (17 points per game), he averaged a full point better in his first year with the Lakers. In fact, he was also second on the club to Kareem in rebounds with nearly 600. Actually Mark Landsberger had a few more, except the bulk of those came before Landsberger was traded to L.A. by the Chicago Bulls.

"One thing I learned very early with the Lakers is that we have to run to win ," Magic told me. "When we stand around we're just another team. But when we get our fast break going, we catch a lot of our opponents out of position on defense. We love it when other teams try to run with us."

"I had some problems at first, particularly in training camp when I'd make a no-look pass to one of my teammates and he wouldn't be there to catch it," he continued. "It wasn't anybody's fault really. It was because guys weren't used to me yet. Because they couldn't see me, they didn't think I could see them and know that they were open."

Johnson (and this is unusual in a man 6 ft. 8 in. tall) is interchangeable at either guard or forward. Part of this is because Magic has all the quickness of a little man in the backcourt, yet is strong enough and clever enough to win most hip-cracking duels under the basket.

Although Johnson was not considered a big scorer in his two years at Michigan State (17 points per game), he averaged a full point better in his first year with the Lakers. In fact, he was also second on the club to Kareem in rebounds with nearly 600. Actually Mark Landsberger had a few more, except the bulk of those came before Landsberger was traded to L.A. by the Chicago Bulls.

When Johnson first joined the Lakers, there was considerable adverse speculation about his defense. Most of the top guards in the league were able to blow right by him, and if Abdul-Jabbar hadn't been back there to block their shots things could have been much worse.

Questioned about Magic's suspect defense, Coach Paul Westhead replied: "Some of the things that were said about Johnson not stopping people might have been true earlier, but since mid-December, Magic has been doing the job. Like most rookies, he had a few things to learn -- a few adjustments to make. But as far I'm concerned, he's made them."

The relationship of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson is sort of a Big Brother-Little Brother thing. Although their lockers are on opposite sides of the Lakers' dressing room, they always find time to talk and socialize.

"Kareem's the franchise, and you have to like the franchise and getting accepted by him was something I wanted very much when I came here," Magic said. "I figure if I get him the ball, he's going to put it in the basket, although I don't look for him anymore than I do anyone else."

Johnson, who won't be 21 until Aug. 14, has personal services contracts with at least nine major businesses, including Magic 1000 Copying Machines, the Magic Cookie Company, Seven-Up, and Oldsmobile.

"Man, I'm not really into the Hollywood scene and I'm not sure I'd ever want to be," Magic said. "I just want to stay me, and although I anticipated some endorsements, I never expected anything like what has happened to me so far. My agent's busy sorting stuff out for me all the time."

Because Johnson's baby-blue Mercedes Benz is known by every pro basketball freak in Los Angeles, he can't drive it anywhere in privacy. His solution is a second car -- an Oldsmobile that allows him to go most places without being followed.

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