Eleven games into this season, the Los Angeles Lakers were winning basketball games, but apparently not enjoying it very much. At least, it seemed that way to Magic Johnson.
Little did he know that five words he was to mutter out of frustration--"I want to be traded"--would change the course of his life and that of then-Coach Paul Westhead's, and would have a profound effect on the Lakers.
Westhead is home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., hoping to get back into coaching. Johnson has become, statistically, the most proficient player in the NBA. And the Lakers, who play Game 2 of their championship series against the 76ers today, are talking about winning 12 straight playoff games in a single season, an unprecedented feat.
In the aftermath of Johnson's November outburst, Lakers owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead and elevated assistant Pat Riley to head coach, even though the Lakers were 7-4 at the time.
Westhead's complicated, patterned, no-fun offense, designed around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was replaced by a loosely structured, wide-open attack utilizing the open-court skills of the entire team.
Johnson wasn't the only player dissatisfied with Westhead's approach.Norm Nixon, Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes also had expressed their displeasure with it, but none as vocally as Johnson.
"Earvin was young and still not completely mature," said Abdul-Jabbar. "I've been around long enough to know that you aren't going to always agree with the approach of the coach, but you learn to live with it. It got to Magic and so he said he wanted out."
Until that time, Johnson was a smiling, carefree kid who was a natural for the 7-Up he pushed in commercials. He had missed a 10-foot shot that caused the Lakers to be eliminated in last year's playoffs, but he was mostly forgiven for that dreadful air ball against the Houston Rockets.
He was not forgiven so quickly for his request to be traded.
The media and the fans turned on Johnson, believing he was the reason for Westhead's firing. He was called a spoiled child and worse in print. He was booed on the road and at home, and his once-natural smile became something he had to force.
Buss insisted at the time that he decided to fire Westhead days before Johnson said he wanted to be traded. Still, Johnson became a villain.
Westhead said today over the telephone from his home that he still doesn't know if Johnson cost him his job. "I just don't know what influence he has," Westhead said, adding that he hasn't spoken to Johnson since the firing simply because he no longer is connected with the team.
"It's unfortunate, though, that it appears that Magic and I feuded, because for 2 1/2 years our relationship was very good. Magic just spoke what was on his mind."
Johnson says he never disliked Westhead, but "just disliked the way we were playing."
"It wasn't fun and fun is what I'm all about," he said earlier this week. "I would never tell somebody how to coach because I'm just a player, but if something bothers me I've got to speak up."
Johnson says he concentrated more on his game to help keep his mind off the boos and negative publicity. He believes this made him a better player.
"You think about it, but you can't let it bother you," Johnson said of the negative reaction he received. "If it did, I would have been out of the game. I want the same things now that I wanted then, that I wanted at Michigan State and in high school. I just want to enjoy the game. And if I can't, then there's no sense in playing."
Johnson's teammates say he has changed since the Westhead firing.
"He's even more mature off the court," Wilkes said during the Western Conference finals against San Antonio, "and it affects his approach to the game. The energy he would use on his high fives or fancy passes he now uses to get a few more rebounds or make a few more assists."
During the regular season, Johnson became only the third player in league history to amass more than 700 rebounds and 700 assists in a single season. He led the league in steals (2.67 per game), was second in assists (9.5) and had the best shooting percentage among the league's guards (54 percent). In the playoffs, he has averaged 17.3 points per game, 11.9 rebounds, 10.1 assists and 2.9 steals.
"I know I'm the floor leader of this team," Johnson said before the first game of this series. "The guys look to me for leadership and I like providing it. I'm not a real part of the offense. That's Kareem, Norm, Mac (Bob McAdoo). I have a role and my role is to get some assists, get some rebounds, keep the game moving and if the opportunity arises, get some points."
Riley says Johnson "can play any role and usually plays them all at the same time. He is the major reason we can play the way we play."
Westhead describes Johnson as "a supreme opportunist" in a basketball sense. "If there is anyone who can smell opportunity and take advantage of it, it's him. He's the perfect one for that. He's just a very special player."
That was quite evident in Game 6 of the 1980 finals at the Spectrum when Abdul-Jabbar was back home with a sprained ankle. Westhead moved Johnson from point guard to center. Johnson responded with 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. The Lakers won the game and the series.
"When you have a player with the skills of a Magic Johnson, you have to use them," Westhead said at the time. Those were almost the same words Johnson used about himself when he voiced his displeasure to Buss six months ago.
Riley, 37, a former guard for the Lakers, quickly changed the team's style of play. "I wanted the team to run, to be free and to use (its) instincts more," he said. Riley added that he believes Johnson had nothing to do with Westhead's dismissal.
Whatever the case, the Lakers are an exciting, appealing team playing a style of basketball that Johnson says is "just a step or two ahead of our time."
In addition, there no longer are whispers of problems on the Lakers. At one time or another Johnson was said to be feuding with Nixon and Abdul-Jabbar. Winning has a way of quieting talk.
Bob McAdoo, who joined the team Dec. 24 as a free agent, said he has never played on a team "with so much talent that got along so well."
This was illustrated in Game 1 Thursday when the Lakers were burying the 76ers. Johnson dribbled down the right side, saw an opening, but held up and glanced at Abdul-Jabbar.
"You want it?" he said, pulling up his dribble.
The answer was yes. Johnson passed Abdul-Jabbar the ball, and he made a sky hook.
"When the big fella wants it, you've got to give it to him," Johnson said afterward.
The same could be said for Magic Johnson.