That infectious smile hardly ever leaves his face. He is in a state of constant euphoria on the court.

He plays the game with a flair seldom seen in the National Basketball Association. His marvelous skills and personality have made him perhaps the biggest attraction the league has seen in years.

In his case, there is only one nickname that does him justice. Earvin Johnson was born to be Magic.

"The game is fun and I can't help but show it," Johnson said yesterday as his team prepared for tonight's game against the Washington Bullets, in the Lakers' only regular season Capital Centre appearance this season.

"We play basically a running, freelance game and we're successful with it," Johnson added.

The Lakers practiced at Georgetown yesterday and, as usual on the road, there were many people around to witness Magic Johnson. Cameras and tape recorders were buzzing around him like he was a presidential candidate.

"I didn't know about all of this show biz stuff when I first came into the league," Johnson said, "It's like this everywhere, but I try to keep it in the right perspective."

Johnson's ball-handling wizardy came as no surprise to anyone, but his scoring ability did. In two college seasons at Michigan State, Johnson had been a 46 percent shooter. And he had no jump shot, the staple of the NBA, to speak of.

"In college, I always played against zones and I had to jump up between two guards to shoot and then there was a forward or two waiting for me, too. I didn't take very many shots in college, either.

"Here, I'm getting some points inside and some outside. I've worked on my shooting and I'm happy about it. Everyone labels people and people said I couldn't shoot, but I never worried about it. They pay you to win. If I shot 20 percent, I don't think it would matter because we'd probably still be winning."

Johnson has turned on basketball fans from coast to coast and his outlook on the sport and on life itself have helped make the Lakers one big happy family and one of the most fun teams in the league to watch.

The Lakers are second in the Pacific Division behind the defending NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics, but Los Angeles' 29-14 record is the fourth best in the league.

The Lakers are shooting 54 percent from the field. The New York Knicks, at 50.1 percent, are the only other team in the league making more than half its shots.

Johnson has done things that it was thought 6-foot-8 1/2 guards couldn't do.

He handles the ball, penetrates, rebounds, shoots, directs traffic -- and wins.

He is averaging 19.5 points and shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 81.4 percent from the foul line. He is fourth in the league in assists, averaging 7.7.

As astounding as his statistics are, Johnson is not a ball hog. He does not have to have the ball to shine.

His running mate at guard, 6-2 third-year man Norm Nixon, has some Magic-like numbers himself.

Nixon is averaging 18.5 points while shooting 53.7 percent. He is sixth in the league in assists, averaging 7.4.

Last season, Nixon, from Duquesne, handled the ball most of time for the Lakers. He ran the offense virtually by himself.

"Magic has taken a whole lot of pressure off me," Nixon said. "Having someone like him who can handle the ball and make plays like he does has to help everybody."

Though he flourishes in the limelight, Johnson would much rather talk about Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabber than about himself.

"Kareem is unbelievable," Johnson said. "He's the greatest. He does it all. He rebounds, shoots, blocks shots, gets assists and, once in a while, will even dribble on you."

Abdul-Jabbar is having an excellent season and Johnson has helped make him perhaps a better all-around player.

"Kareem is playing better because he doesn't have to work as hard as he did last year," said Nixon. "He's got help now."

Abdul-Jabber dominates the NBA statistics. He is sixth in scoring with a 24.4 average; first in the field goal percentage, shooting 62.4 percent; first in blocked shots, rejecting 3.6 a game, and sixth in rebounding with 11.3 a game.

Johnson isn't the only new Laker this season.There is a new owner, a new coach and six new players.

The most notable after Johnson are power forwards Spencer Haywood and Jim Chones, the latter also the backup center. Both have given Abdul-Jabber some much needed help rebounding.

"Everybody needs help," Abdul-Jabber said. "I have the help. We have a team that can compete with any team. We have talent at all positions and we have depth that we can count on."

Laker Coach Jack McKinney is still recovering from a serious bicycle accident and is not with the team. His assistant, 39-year-old Paul Westhead, has been running the team since early in the season and will continue to do so indefinitely . . . Tonight's game is the Lakers' third in a five-game, 13-day road trip . . . Kevin Grevey, who played only nine minutes against Golden State and not at all against Utah, the Bullet's last two games, has recovered from the stomach flu and is expected to play tonight . . . as of yesterday, fewer than 1,500 tickets were available.