"It's show time again," said Magic Johnson, in what probably is the most accurate way of describing the change that has come over the Los Angeles Lakers since Pat Riley replaced Paul Westhead as coach.
When Westhead was fired Nov. 19, the day after Johnson had demanded to be traded because he wasn't "having any fun," and couldn't get along with the coach, the Magic man became the instant villain, the logical fall guy, the easy one to blame.
Now, after winning 16 of 18 games and the last five in a row under Riley, the players are thankful that their effervescent young guard spoke out. The truth is, Westhead's system had been criticized in the Los Angeles media long before his firing and the coach had been teetering on the brink of departure for a week. Johnson's outburst simply expedited his dismissal.
Many people who follow the Lakers or work at the Forum say that Westhead had become withdrawn, almost a recluse, and so defensive about his newly devised style of play that he wouldn't even discuss it with General Manager Bill Sharman or special consultant Jerry West.
"It got to the point where Paul wasn't communicating with anyone, wasn't listening to any advice, wasn't even talking to the players except when necessary," said Bob Steiner, the public relations director of the Forum. "Apparently he was very sensitive and, I guess, insecure.
"It had been decided on Sunday (four days before the firing) to let him go, but Jerry (Buss, the owner) hesitated for one of the few times in his life. He had made up his mind, but he was going to wait until the team got back from its trip. It's just unfortunate that Magic made his statements when he did because then he became the fall guy."
Westhead was not available to comment yesterday. When asked last week by a reporter from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner about his reaction to criticism from his players, Westhead said, "That doesn't bother me. I'm not bitter. This kind of thing happens in coaching. I'm working right now on organizing myself for my next job."
Johnson, the Lakers' most popular player, was greeted with boos at the Forum during the first game after Westhead's ouster, and in Seattle. Columnists from the East, with little knowledge of the situation, criticized Johnson, calling him a spoiled brat with a 25-year security blanket. Johnson had signed a 25-year contract worth $25 million before the season.
"Nobody here is mad at Magic," said Mitch Kupchak, obtained by the Lakers from the Bullets in August. "We all knew what was going on. I think some of us were surprised he went so public with his complaints, but he just said what some of the others were thinking."
The Lakers free-lanced their way to the world championship two years ago and a 54-28 record last season, despite Johnson's absence for 45 games because of a knee injury. They were told to run a new, highly structured offense this season.
"We ran what the coach wanted us to," Johnson said about the early season struggles. "That was his system and that was what he believed in. As players, all we could do was run it and hope it worked."
The Lakers are so talented that they managed to win seven of 11 games under Westhead, but six of the victories were by four points or fewer. They obviously were playing into their opponents' hands by slowing down their offense.
"Before we weren't getting any easy baskets," said Johnson. "Now we're getting the layups, the back-door plays, the fast break. That's the way it should be. If we don't play like this, we're just an average team.
"I think everybody feels more comfortable now. We're all more relaxed and not worried about making a mistake, about cutting the wrong way or passing to the wrong guy.
"We can make things happen. We're playing well now, but we're going to get even better. When we're running and playing our game, we're one of the top three teams in the league."
If the opinion of Johnson is that he's a spoiled brat, that is no closer to the truth than the perception of him as every mother's son. Realistically, he's never been as wonderful as he appears on those 7-Up commercials, but he's not the disruptive force many believe he is, either.
When he spoke out against Westhead, Johnson merely was forcing the action, just as he does so often on court. That is his personality. But it seems clear that even if he hadn't opened his mouth, Westhead's days were numbered.
By tearing down the system of his predecessor, Jack McKinney, and constructing his own, which eliminated the creativity and spontaneity of his highly skilled players, Westhead turned all-stars into puppets.
"A lot of guys were unhappy, but they just didn't say anything," said Kupchak. "But there was some friction with the coach and that's all been eliminated now."
Norm Nixon, Johnson's back court partner, was responsible for directing Westhead's offense. He said the attitude has changed completely in the last two weeks.
"You can feel it," he said. "You can tell in the locker room before the game. The guys are anxious to play now, they want to go out there. The attitude now just makes it so much easier to play."
The thoughtful and articulate Jamaal Wilkes didn't want to get drawn into the discussion of Westhead's dismissal and, obviously, is the type of person who would not have complained publicly, as Johnson did.
"There are a lot of guys here who might have said what Magic did, but they didn't want to see Paul get fired," he said. "I couldn't believe it was so public."
Johnson says he's doesn't regret what he said or the repercussions, but insists his outburst did not cause Westhead to lose his job.
"There are a lot of things people don't understand," he said when asked how it felt to be booed. "As long as I know that I wasn't the cause of the coach getting fired -- and I know that -- then I can deal with whatever happens."