Magic Returns as Johnson Guides Lakers

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The old gang was back Sunday night for the Magic Man's return to the National Basketball Association . . . Dyan and Arsenio and even Jack, all of them diehard Los Angeles Lakers fans again, at least for the night.

Judging by the the celebrities, the media crush and the national television audience, it might have been playoff time again as the Lakers sold out the Forum for only the third time this season.

But there will be no playoffs here any time soon, and Showtime was on the bench. Desperate for a winner, the once-faithful came back to see Magic Johnson make his coaching debut against the Milwaukee Bucks and his former coach, Mike Dunleavy.

Angelenos know a good show when they see one. And there hadn't been one with the Lakers since the day nearly three years ago when Johnson walked away, retiring from the game because he tested positive for HIV.

And the show was on Sunday night. The Lakers came out inspired, and stormed to a 71-39 lead early in the third quarter.

This season, the once-proud Lakers are wallowing in the lower strata of the Western Conference, well out of playoff range. The low point probably came when the Turner Network canceled a planned national telecast of a Lakers games with the Boston Celtics.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss only was one man who could bring the magic back to the Forum, where, like ancient Rome, civilization was crumbling and the spectators were screaming for blood.

So Buss dumped coach Randy Pfund last week and asked Johnson, 34, to try on coaching for size. Like Pat Riley, when he first directed the Lakers, Johnson never had coached before. But, as Dunleavy notes, Magic played more with his head than his skills, anyway. "He never was that athletic," Dunleavy said.

This being the land of make-believe, the locals seem to prefer hopeful endings. But no one knows yet how long until the curtain drops on this performance.

Johnson, a vocal critic of the team's lack of heart this season, put the Lakers through a 3 1/2-hour practice Saturday, their longest and toughest of the season. …