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Steve Springer

Magic's Assists Keep On Coming, Even Through the Summer

July 12, 1987|Steve Springer

The kids always come in on cloud nine, their eyes seemingly open to twice their normal size, their jaws hanging down to their little chests.

They have spent a large percentage of their short lives following the exploits of Joe Superstar and now here they are, enrolling in the Joe Superstar Sports Camp.

This is the man they have seen on the tube or from the far reaches of a cheap seat and now they are going to be able to reach out and touch him.

Unfortunately, reality can turn out to be quite cruel.

Sure, Joe Superstar has a camp. He is there for the opening and the closing, but not much else. When it is time to go home, the poor kids haven't gotten much closer to their hero than they do at the ballpark.

That's certainly not to say this is always the case, but it does happen.

You might think it would be the case at the Magic Johnson Basketball Camp that concluded its annual five-day session Thursday at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

After all, here is a guy who was leading the charge against the Boston Celtics, fast-breaking his way to the top of the basketball world just a few weeks ago. He could be soaking in the glory of his achievements at the vacation spot of his choice, attending banquets, picking up trophies or piling up the bucks making one commercial after another.

So why would Earvin Johnson want to waste his time showing an 8-year-old how to grip the ball on a jumper?

Indeed, he himself was the first to admit that the 350 or so campers whose parents plunked down anywhere from $200 (for the day sessions only) to $400 (includes boarding) weren't going to spend a lot of time with Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Laker superstar guard.

"We rap, but I want them to know they are with Earvin Johnson now, not Magic Johnson," he said. "I want these kids to realize that I'm a regular guy they can walk up to and talk to, that I'm the kind of guy they can reach out to."

And he likes being there for them. So he is a full-time resident of the camp. It's nice to put Showtime behind him for a little while and get involved in Show Time, showing the next generation how it is done.

"I'm not into vacations, long ones," he said. "I like the little short ones, but I've got to keep busy. I enjoy doing this because it brings out another part of me, the kid part."

The campers, of course, love it. When Johnson sits down with these kids, the questions never stop.

How many girlfriends do you have?

How many cars?

Are you and Larry Bird really friends?

Did Pat Riley throw away his suit after you guys won the championship?

Johnson, that infectious laugh of his punctuating his responses, answers them all.

But there is also a serious side to all this.

"You have to be stern with these kids, sometimes," he said. "If they think they're here just for fun, to be with Magic Johnson, then they should pack up and go home. They are here to learn basketball.

"We don't start out teaching them all the tricky moves. We want them to learn the basics first. If they are right-handed, I want them to learn to use their left hand and vice-versa. You've got to learn that before you get into the behind-the-back moves."

When Johnson is in his teaching mode, it's not unusual to see that trademark smile disappear, replaced with the scowl of a disciplinarian.

"I tell them, when I want something done, I want it done now, not five minutes from now," he said. "If they come in just laughing and joking, they'll be laughing and joking all week. We can laugh and joke at lunch and dinner, but they are here to learn something, too. I've got to give them everything, not just the good part. I want them to learn discipline. If it is not going to be in basketball, discipline is still something they are going to need in everyday life."

Among the campers this year is a youngster named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jr.

"I guess if he sent his son here," said Johnson of his illustrious teammate, "he trusts me."

And trusts that he'll be there, all the time.

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