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|Earvin "Magic" Johnson: The NBA's game-changer (Focus On Sport via Getty Images)|
Now, after the Laker practice, the press waited for Magic. Everybody wanted a piece of him. It had been a long time since a black athlete had come into the league who was so enthusiastic and thus so reassuring. Perhaps not since Willie Mays in another sport and another era had there been a black athlete so ingenuous and so boyish. But no one had ever had to sell the innocence of baseball -- baseball was innocent as the memory of every village green, even to those who had never set foot on one. But basketball was different. Its media franchisers, the people in the commissioner's office, the people who ran CBS Sports, the people who sold the commercials for television, were finding it worrisome. Not only was it less linked to American myth, not only were its players blacker -- and more obviously so, given the skimpiness of their uniforms compared to baseball and football -- but they had also become, over the years, more politicized, prouder, and more outspoken. Some, like Kareem, had been unwilling to play for the U.S. Olympic team. Madison Avenue already had its doubts about professional as opposed to college basketball. Athletes were increasingly viewed by Madison Avenue as articulate but surly and ungrateful or, just as bad, grateful but inarticulate.
Thus did the network and league fasten on Magic...
... The crowd gathered early under the Laker basket to watch Magic. He brought with him not just his own joy but a public display of his excitement. At his best, he was one of the most innovative new players in the game; he appeared to invent a new pass and a new move every time he had the ball. He had the height of a forward, 6'8", but he played guard, where men in the past had only been 6'4", or, at best, 6'5". He had the potential for changing the way the game was played. In basketball there is something called the transition game: a team is on offense, it puts up a shot, the shot misses, the defensive team takes the rebound and starts downcourt. The second or two in which the teams change over, offense to defense, defense to offense, is called the transition period: traditionally, it was the bigger men who had to rebound, and then, because they were not very good ballhandlers, they passed the ball off to smaller guards who were ballhandlers. But because Magic was so tall he was able to at once rebound and then lead the attack up the court without passing off himself. That made it harder for the defensive team to set up and it dramatically altered the flow of the game. Still, the other players were not sure he was a player yet. That was their word, a player. All the hype and hoopla worked against him. Hype and hoopla were white, written by whites and sold by whites, and they did not often connect to the core of basketball.