Los Angeles — The one thing Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers doesn't need is someone comparing him with Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, or Jerry West, generally considered to be the three greatest guards ever to play professional basketball.
There are two reasons that Johnson doesn't need this: (1) Originals never lend themselves very well to comparisons, since it is always something in their thinking that makes them the way they are; and (2) Magic is 6 ft. 8 in. tall.
Cousy was barely 6-2; Robertson and West, 6-5. And while Oscar and Jerry might move to be forwards for a series of plays, Johnson rebounds well enough that he could actually play there for a full season.
So why, in the name of Dr. James Naismith, was Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics voted the National Basketball Association's Rookie of the Year for the 1979-80 season, with Magic a distant second?
"I think a lot of it had to do with the adjusted NBA schedule, where Western teams don't play nearly as often in the big Eastern cities as they have in the past," explained Laker Coach Paul Westhead. "For example, we made only one appearance during the regular season last year in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
"I think if the newspapermen in those cities who don't travel had seen more of Magic, they would have written more about him and gained a better appreciation of him," Westhead continued. "But he was a better rookie than Bird , whether he got the votes or not, and everybody should see him this year, because there isn't a guard around who does more things well."
What you have to remember is that Johnson was only 20 years old when he played his first official game with Los Angeles, a junior at Michigan State had he chosen to remain in college. He had to be a gamble at that age, despite his talents, and presumably too much responsibility too soon could have ruined him.
But the Lakers, after seeing the scouting reports on Magic, didn't draft him to bring him along slowly off the bench. Instead they gave him a $1 million-plus contract to lead LA in speeding up the fast break, with hopes that veteran center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might catch some of this kid's enthusiasm, which he did.
With Kareem playing harder at both ends of the floor than he had since joining the Lakers in time for the 1975-76 season, LA won 60 games en route to the Pacific Division title. Later, of course, it captured the NBA championship by eliminating Phoenix, Seattle, and Philadelphia in the playoffs.
At this point in his career, there is no way anyone can honestly say that Johnson is as good as Cousy or Robertson or West. Magic must stand the test of time before getting that kind of praise.
But if Johnson's game continues to expand the way it has so far, and he doesn't get hurt or lose his enthusiasm, people are going to talk about his exploits after he retires in much the same way they do about Cousy's.
Basically there are two kinds of passers in pro basketball -- those who make beautiful passes that don't lead to anything, and those who get the ball to teammates where they can consistently do something with it.
When Magic first came into the league last year, he often bounced passes off intended receivers, who didn't know what to expect from him. But by midseason both parties had adjusted so well that those incomplete passes were being turned into baskets.
"There were times last year, mostly early in the season, when Magic was criticized for not playing enough defense," Westhead said. "And with Johnson working so hard to get our offense going and to learn what his own role was, some of that was true. But by the end of the season he was giving us as much defense as you can expect from someone whose main responsibilities are in other areas, and, in fact, he has become a very alert defensive player."
Asked how he and guard Norman Nixon worked out their offensive responsibilities last year after some early problems of adjusting to each other, Johnson replied:
"We're both aggressive; we'd never played together; and we were both used to going back for the ball. Either one of us is capable of bringing the ball up the floor, only when both of us went back to get it that meant that one lane on the Lakers' fast break was consistently being left open.
"Mostly it was a case of learning how to read each other, and once we solved this, there was no more problem. In fact, I had some of the same problems with Kareem, whom I was very anxious to please last year. I had to learn to read him , too, and now that I have we're a much better ball club."