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MAGIC : Even When He's Supposed to Be Resting and Relaxing, Johnson Can't Avoid Working In Some Basketball : Staying Busy in His Summer of Discontent

July 20, 1986|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

The kid couldn't have been more than 10 years old, and neither he nor his high-top sneakers, broken in while shooting baskets on some suburban driveway, were accustomed to walking on air.

But out of all the purple T-shirts attending the basketball camp at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, Magic Johnson picked him for the next demonstration: How to box out for a rebound, even when you're 2 1/2 feet shorter than the NBA superstar giving the lesson.

Thus the smile, at once delighted and self-conscious, as the kid took his place on the gym floor.

"We're not playing around, right?" Magic Johnson gently admonished. "This is serious business."

In the middle of July, six weeks after an NBA season that ended abruptly and unhappily for the Lakers, basketball was business again for Johnson, even if it was scaled down from Houston's Twin Towers to Eagle Rock's knee-high to a grasshopper.

The game that consumes nine months of his year also works its way into his summer, although perhaps not to the degree prescribed by Boston's Larry Bird, who said he's ready to begin practicing one week after the season ends.

"I can relate to what he's saying," Johnson said of his Celtic rival. "I'd be ready to go, too. I still play the tapes of our games at home.

"But while my mind tells me I'm ready to go, my body's telling me I need to rest.

"(Bird) is the champ now. He can lay back a little more. He needs to rest and he knows that. He played a lot of minutes, and played hard. He needs to rest for when everybody starts shooting at the champs."

And so, for a while anyway, Johnson distances himself from the game, too. There was a trip to the Caribbean, another to Hawaii, and still a third is planned to the French Riviera, "if things continue all right with the terrorist situation.

"I put so much of my mind and body and soul and heart into it during the season, that if I'm going to get back and refreshed for next season, I just have to relax and do other things," he said.

But basketball is never too far away. There are the camps, like the one in Eagle Rock, that he conducts throughout the country. There is the benefit game for the United Negro College Fund that he has put together for next month at Pauley Pavilion, in which he and Bird are scheduled to be teammates for the first time. There is some question just now, however, whether the Celtics will allow Bird to play.

And there are the hours he spends at home in his video room, watching himself play, at times just for pleasure, more often to determine how he, and the rest of the Lakers, can be better this winter.

"I haven't come to a conclusion yet, but I'm almost there--I'm almost at the end," Johnson said.

"I think I have to open it up for the team, be more selfish."

In other words, shoot more, which he said Laker Coach Pat Riley asked him to do halfway through last season.

"But it's been so long since I played that way, it's tough," Johnson said. "I picked it up for a while, then I went back to my old way.

"I did it a little more in the Houston series, and after watching (the tapes of) the playoffs, I understand what he's trying to tell me."

The summer's hottest rumor had the Lakers trading James Worthy to the Dallas Mavericks for small forward Mark Aguirre and top draft choice Roy Tarpley, the Michigan center. Aguirre is one of Johnson's closest friends.

"I would never trade, if it were up to me, I never would trade James for Mark, no," Johnson said.

"They both do different things, but James has been there (to championships) so many times before. I'd never trade them straight up."

But if a big man were included in the package?

Johnson laughed. "I'm going to stay out of it from there," he said.

"I love James. He's going to be a great player. It would be tough to trade him for just one guy. You'd have to get a couple, three, four guys, he's that good.

"I hope to see him on the wing slam dunking for us for a long time."

With the Houston Rockets having been taken to new heights by Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, there is a growing belief that the power in the West has shifted from the Forum to the Summit.

"I'm not worried about that," Johnson said. "They played better and deserved to win.

"But it's time for us to prove we can come back. Three or four times, we've proved it already.

"Last season, the pressure was on us (as defending champions). The weight will be on them this season. Let's see what they do with it."

Johnson agrees with Riley's judgment that the Lakers will have to play "bigger" but believes that they can do so with the team's current composition.

"We'll be back," he said. "Even if we're the same team, we'll be strong again. Petur (Gudmundsson, the backup center) will be that much better. When he gets a full season, he's going to be a help to us, especially as Riley is getting confidence in him.

"We'll be bigger and better even if we don't make changes."

The campers had returned from lunch, and it was just about time for Johnson to resume his place at center court.

"We've always come back from losing since I've been here, and we'll be back this year," he said. "And this is Kareem's last year. We're going to want to win it for him."

Johnson smiled. A serious business was about to be fun again.

"Somebody is going to be in trouble," he said.

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