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Coach Magic Ready to Roll : Pro basketball: Rookie Laker boss approaches debut much as he did as a player--with enthusiasm and hard work.

March 27, 1994|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OK, but can he coach?

Magic Johnson has already gone Mach I in talent and popularity, but he is suddenly a rookie again with a new barrier to break, stepping into one of the loftiest positions in basketball, coach of the Lakers, with the smallest of resumes. The four-week test run starts tonight, when the Milwaukee Bucks visit the Forum.

Johnson's supporters are unwavering in their belief that he can quickly adapt to the intricacies others have spent years learning. He was a coach on the floor during 1,060 regular-season and playoff games, right? John Lucas, a stint with the summertime U.S. Basketball League his only background when hired in San Antonio, ran on a similar platform for respectability last season and now has the Spurs contending for a title.

But there are skeptics. Some of his new peers, for example.

"The thing is, when you sit there, you have 10 thoughts on your mind," Seattle SuperSonic Coach George Karl said last week. "And not only do you have to evaluate which one to do, but you have to evaluate the effect that each one will have on your team, on the other team and probably also on psychological circumstances. There is a tremendous amount of information involved in making decisions. All of this has to be done in seconds and minutes. I think he's going to be amazed."

Counterpoint:

"Magic is one of the more unique players I've ever been around," said Laker assistant Bill Bertka, in his 22nd season on an NBA bench and a coach on the pro and college level since 1954. "In a timeout, he could tell you how everybody on his team was being played defensively. His court perception and game presence is a true gift. These are some things guys in this business spend their whole life trying to hone."

The Lakers are not alone in this belief. The Atlanta Hawks wanted to fire Bob Weiss last January and have Johnson take over and, like the current situation, finish the season before deciding if he would like to return. The commitment was so great that management, looking for an infusion in the team and the turnstiles, was willing to fly Johnson's family back and forth from Los Angeles and say now they were willing to offer a blank-check contract.

"I thought prior to meeting with him that he would be an ideal candidate to be a successful coach in the NBA," Hawk General Manager Pete Babcock said. "Not only was he a great player, but he was an intelligent player. He always seemed to see things before they happened and he had enthusiasm and great work ethic and preparation.

"Then after meeting with him, I was even more impressed. That reinforced everything I thought about him. He detailed his organization in a practice, what his areas of emphasis would be, going through each player on our roster and saying how he would use their strengths and hide their weaknesses. I had a real good idea what he wanted to do with the team."

The Hawks thought he might accept their offer, and Johnson admits he came close before deciding to keep pursuit of ownership as his No. 1 priority. So he heads into the debut tonight and a 16-game test run before deciding on his future with only one prior run as a bench coach, with his barnstorming team that has played around the world and against CBA opponents.

One difference. The likes of Mike Dunleavy, Karl and Lenny Wilkens, all counterparts within the first eight days of his reign, were not on the other side in Grand Rapids or Argentina.

"I'm not worried because there's already a lot of bad coaches, so I'll just join the rest of them," Johnson said. "What's the difference? Might as well give me a chance.

"I'm not worried about that at all. The difference is, I played and I know the game. The players have got to play. I don't care how good a coach you are, it's the players who get the job done. You've just got to prepare them and hopefully they will execute, they will play defense, on an on. I'm going to get them out there, I'm going to prepare them. I'll guarantee you this: whether we win or lose, they will be better players at the end of the season. I guarantee you that.

"Having my tour and coaching and playing, I had to draw the plays up, I had to make decisions before games, I had to diagram plays in the timeouts, that whole thing. I feel good about this, the fact that I think I can do this. Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that tomorrow I'll be a great coach or anything. I know that anything takes time and you have to work at it. I talked to Pat Riley already. I will use Jerry West's expertise, I will use Bill Sharman. I'm going to use people around me and ask them what it takes to be a good coach. I don't have all the answers. I do know what it takes to win and what it takes to be a good basketball player, and that's hard work. You have to go to work."

Starting tonight.

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