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Magic Johnson Coming Back to Lakers as Coach : Basketball: He will take over from Randy Pfund. The team has struggled since the star retired.

March 23, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a development whose timing caught all of basketball by surprise, the Los Angeles Lakers said Tuesday night that their former star, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, this week will become the team's new coach.

Johnson will replace Coach Randy Pfund, the team said, a stunning development that came 11 days after the Lakers announced they had extended Pfund's contract by one season.

Laker assistant Bill Bertka will coach the team's next two games, at Dallas tonight and at Houston Thursday night. Johnson, who has never coached, will take over Sunday when the Lakers play Milwaukee at the Forum.

Michael Cooper, Johnson's longtime teammate, will become an assistant coach, officials said.

The Lakers called a news conference for 11 this morning to make a formal announcement. Johnson could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Johnson, one of basketball's greatest players, originally retired before the 1991-92 season when he learned he was HIV-positive. He mounted a brief comeback during the exhibition season that year but then called it off. He has been taking the drug AZT, reporting no adverse effects, and has kept up a hectic schedule that includes color commentary on NBA telecasts and a barnstorming tour.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said, "Anything that would bring Magic Johnson back would be good for the league."

Johnson said last spring that Laker owner Jerry Buss offered him Pfund's job, but he turned it down. At the time, Johnson said he would be interested in coaching only if he also was allowed to buy a percentage of the franchise.

Johnson was then a member of a group applying for an expansion franchise in Toronto. Several months later, that franchise was awarded to a rival group.

Pfund kept his job after the Lakers made a surprisingly strong showing in last spring's playoffs, taking a 2-0 lead over the heavily favored Phoenix Suns before falling, 3-2.

Buss said at the team's training camp in Honolulu in October that he planned to extend Pfund's contract, which was to run through the end of next season, adding that he wanted to keep Johnson in the organization "in some capacity."

Buss also said of Johnson in October: "I think it would be great for Earvin to be coach of the Lakers, but at the same time, he has a lot of very big-time businesses. And whether he can devote the unbelievable number of hours weekly to one occupation to the exclusion of all others, I don't know. If he tells me he can, we're going to sit down and talk."

Negotiations for Pfund's contract extension took more than four months, with Buss asking for a clause that would allow him to reassign the coach to the front office.

Pfund got a one-year extension without the clause but sounded downbeat when talking about it.

"Without going overboard on it and trying to pin too much to it because I'm a realistic person," Pfund said, "I think it shows there is some confidence in our management in what I've tried to do the last year-and-a-half. I think you can leave it at that."

Meanwhile, Johnson, a season-ticket holder with a courtside seat a few feet from the Laker bench, was growing restless. In January, he blasted the team's performance and demeanor.

"I don't think the guys have pride," Johnson said. "I see teams coming in here laughing at us.

"What's so bad about it is the fact that it is something that you have built up and you have pride in that. I never thought in my wildest dreams that after I retired it would be this bad so quickly.

"We had pride. We lost a game and you'd think we had lost 20 games. Nobody said a word. We showered and no words. And we came back and made a point the next game we were going to kick somebody's butt because we weren't going to lose two games in a row.

"We took losses hard, and I don't think I see the same thing now. I don't see it and I'm there all the time. I don't see guys getting better and I don't know if they're not working at it or what. It's tough for me."

Pfund, a protege of former Laker coach Pat Riley, was 66-80 in his brief tenure. Ironically, he was burdened in his first season by the loss of Johnson. After that, the team began stocking younger players in a rebuilding program.

* RELATED STORIES: C1

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