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The Future Might Be Now for Magic : Lakers: Coaching debut is more like a tryout to see if he will like the job enough to do it next season.


Magic Johnson, a man who needs no introduction, was officially introduced as the Lakers' new coach on Wednesday, a job owner Jerry Buss wanted him to take for two years but might ultimately last only 16 games.

Standing at the same spot where he announced his retirement 2 1/2 years ago after testing HIV-positive and later his aborted comeback attempt, Johnson said he might only be the interim coach after Randy Pfund was fired. What happens between Sunday against Milwaukee at the Forum in his debut and the season finale exactly four weeks later, assuming the Lakers' longshot playoff hopes don't materialize, will determine whether he returns for 1994-95.

"I'm happy to be back with the Laker family, for however long it's going to be," he said at a packed news conference at the Forum. "I know it's for about a month, anyway.

"It is something that I'm doing because Dr. Buss asked me would I do it. I told him I would do it for him, and that's the reason I'm doing it. . . . I'm looking forward to the challenge, because, basically, that's what it is, a new challenge. I will put forth 125% effort, just like I did when I was a player, and we'll see what it's all about from there."

The Lakers bristled at the notion that the move, first announced Tuesday night, was made to boost lagging interest as the team heads to the lottery for the first time. That wouldn't make sense from an economic point of view, they say, because Johnson can't sell enough tickets in the remaining 10 home games to make much of a difference.

What does make sense, Buss and General Manager Jerry West said, is all about basketball. Maybe a little logic, too. Pfund was going to be fired after the season anyway, so why not let Johnson take the team for a test drive and see if he likes the feel as a fledgling coach as much as a superstar point guard? If so, the coaching search ends immediately.

"I decided in the last few weeks that next year I would like to have a new coach," Buss said. "Since that was the case, by coaching the rest of the year I felt Earvin could gain some invaluable experience and at the same time find out whether it is something he'll want to do long range."

Said West: "Jerry Buss had made that decision, that we were going to have a coaching change. This will give Earvin a chance over the next month to see if this is something he would have a future with and enjoy, get his feet wet, get to know some of our younger players and hope to impart some of the things he has learned as a basketball player. And we really feel, particularly with our young players, that this will be a very positive thing for us.

"It's certainly not a business decision, not at all. Period. This is not a sideshow. This is something we hope that will help our ballclub and particularly our younger players."

And if Magic does not continue past this season?

"That makes little or no difference because it gives him an opportunity to see if it's something he would really want to continue," West said. "He has no plans at this point in time, but next year, after he's going through it, it might be something that really whets his appetite, a chance for him to participate in a game that he loves. If not, it gives us an opportunity to go out and look for someone that we would want to coach our team for the future."

So Pfund apparently became expendable within the last two weeks, after Buss, who over the previous two years had talked with Johnson in a conversational sense about taking over, turned the talks into an actual offer. What made the timing so strange, in addition to it being late in a season when the Lakers didn't expect to make the playoffs anyway, was that they had won six of the final eight games under Pfund and were improving on defense, the area of most criticism from management.

One of the greatest players in basketball history, whose talent can only be rivaled by his popularity in Los Angeles during the Showtime era of the 1980s that produced five NBA titles, Johnson will undoubtedly be questioned about his health as much as his coaching abilities at every stop. Wednesday, noting he has played regularly while heading a barnstorming team that has toured the world, the league's all-time assist leader said he does not have AIDS and is fit to coach.

For how long appears to be the question.

"I can't think about next season until I'm there," he said. "Give me a shot at Saturday (at the opening practice) first. Let me just concentrate on that right now."

What issues will he analyze in deciding whether to come back?

"Did the team improve, both as a team and individuals? Did I enjoy myself? Is it something that I really want to put my time effort into? Because it takes a lot of time."

In the meantime, Johnson, 34, easily becomes the NBA's highest-paid coach. Sort of. He signed no coaching contract, but continues to draw on the playing contract that pays him $2.5 million this season and $14.6 million for 1994-95.

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