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The Magic Touch : Lakers Star Exhorts Students to 'Dream . . . and Go for It'

February 25, 1988|JAMES RAINEY | Times Staff Writer

The kid on stage at the high school auditorium is a big man on campus. A star athlete who likes the right music, he knows the right people and can rap with the best.

But Earvin Johnson, the Lakers "Magic," brought a few other credentials to school--as the National Basketball Assn.'s most valuable player, and owner of a Bel-Air mansion and the ink-black Rolls-Royce convertible parked out front.

For an hour last Monday the basketball super hero came from the world of the fantastic and made himself familiar to 1,200 students at Westchester High School.

"I didn't know it before he came," said teacher Peter Johnson, "but he is really their God."

Johnson, an English teacher and senior class sponsor, organized a letter-writing campaign to persuade Johnson, the superstar, to visit the campus.

Magic speaks at about 10 schools a year, but turns down many more. Before a game at the Forum a couple of months ago, Laker publicist Josh Rosenfeld dropped a box in front of Johnson that contained 200 letters from Westchester students.

Johnson's reaction was: "This is really nice. We should go over there."

When he stepped on stage on Monday afternoon in a powder blue sweat suit, Johnson was greeted by a roar worthy of any rock star. When the cheers finally died, Magic simply said, "Hi."

The students erupted again.

"I'm happy to be here." More yelling and whistling. Students strained to push themselves in front of a bank of television cameras.

"We've all been on TV now, so let's just chill out," Magic said, bringing the crowd to a hush. "My name is Earvin Johnson Jr. . . . They call me Magic."

For the next 45 minutes, Johnson held the assembled students, teachers and reporters gently in his sway.

He opened with a simple message: Don't take drugs. Study hard. Go to college. Honor your parents. And "dream, dream, dream and go for it."

Then Magic asked for questions and students lined up, 15 deep, behind two microphones in the auditorium.

Girls asked for kisses.

A boy wanted to know if Magic could beat Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan one-on-one. (It would be a tossup, Magic said.)

Another asked him to name the NBA's toughest player. (Larry Bird he answered--and the kids booed.)

A girl asked him about his favorite music (Michael Jackson and Prince) and another wanted to know his favorite beaches. (Venice for excitement, Santa Monica for a walk and Malibu for a romantic date.)

The master showman didn't miss the small touches, either, recognizing the school's highly rated boys and girls basketball teams, and star forward Zan Mason by name.

He gently chided a questioner named Andre, joking about him being a lady killer. "I see the comb in your pocket, Andre," Johnson said, mimicking the boy combing his hair between classes. Andre and the other kids roared with laughter.

Another girl wanted to know if Magic could dance "the cabbage patch," but instead he asked the kids to do it. They closed out the show that way--the basketball star leading rhythmic clapping and the students waving their arms and wriggling their shoulders.

The adoration continued backstage, where one girl gushed after reaching over to stroke Magic's hair. Others offered phone numbers and addresses; even marriage proposals. Magic responded with demure kisses and hugs.

A talk about drugs and school work would have gotten old fast, students said, if the message had not come from Johnson.

"No. 1, he is from the world champion Los Angeles Lakers," said senior Sherri Johnson, who interviewed the guest for the student newspaper, The Comet. "No. 2, he's a people person. He's outgoing. He's funny. He can relate to people and enjoy people. He doesn't say 'Don't do this and don't do that.' "

Johnson, 28, acknowledged later that there is one dent in his message about academics: he dropped out of Michigan State University after his sophomore year. "I didn't finish because the opportunity was there for me," Johnson said. "If there is a great opportunity for them to make money--a legal way to make money--then I would say, 'Take it.' "

But he says he still intends to graduate, and when he does, "I think the message will be stronger. I'm going to get the degree. That will put everything to rest."

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