Magic is sight for sore Lakers eyes


You really have to feel for Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Van Exel. Because you know that sometimes during these last weeks of the season the rookie guard is going to totally foul up a play during a practice. And then the whistle will blow, the coach will take the floor and execute the same play -- 10 times better.

The Magic is back in Los Angeles and while Earvin Johnson won't get the chance to wear his old No. 32 on the court, it sure is nice to see him in his stylish suits on the sidelines coaching the Lakers.

Even after some of his peers turned their backs on the greatest point guard to ever play the game, Johnson was not able to get the sport out of his system. Showing no effects from the HIV virus that led to his retirement, Johnson formed his own basketball team and has spent recent months touring and dazzling basketball fans worldwide.

Now he replaces Randy Pfund in a season in which the team's chances of making the playoffs are remote. What owner Jerry Buss is doing now is seeing if there's anyone able to motivate the Lakers, a team that Johnson criticized this season as seeming to "lack pride."

Johnson will be demanding. His first practice lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes and ended only after an assistant coach reminded Johnson the team had a game the next night.

After the Lakers beat Milwaukee in his debut, 110-101, Sunday night, Johnson said: "We wore them down, but we wore ourselves down. . . . If I can keep them believing in themselves and saying that this is the way we can win and work ourselves into shape in terms of playing this style, we're gonna be fine."

Former Lakers star Michael Cooper is Johnson's assistant, so the current players will be learning from a pair that was part of a championship era.

Many coaches today refuse to criticize players, perhaps fearful of the power wielded by their high salaries. Johnson won't fall victim to such fears and, thus, should enjoy some degree of success.

Now if only the Lakers had some players. Until then, it's just great to see Johnson back.

Better without Starks?

When the New York Knicks lost All-Star guard John Starks to a knee injury earlier this month, many predicted the team's demise.

Thirteen straight wins later, the Knicks are on one of their best streaks in team history going into the final four weeks of the season. Strangely enough, New York may have become a better team after Starks went down.

Second-year guard Hubert Davis, who replaced Starks in the starting lineup, is getting his first chance at key minutes and is thriving. Unlike the sometimes amazing, sometimes out of control Starks, Davis is more consistent, making for better ball distribution. And that tends to keep the other players happy. Plus Davis can score, with a career-high 32 points in a recent game.

He is scheduled to return for the playoffs. If he hasn't lost a step, his skills as a defender will be sorely needed. His control on the offensive end, however, will be key.

Webber deserves Dream nod

Now that Shaquille O'Neal and his agents have settled the cola allegiance problems, USA Basketball will round out the members of Dream Team II, which will participate in the World Championships Aug. 4-14 in Toronto.

The Orlando Magic All-Star will be the second center on the team, bringing the roster up to 11 players with one spot to fill by fTC Thursday.

So, who gets the nod? Here's a vote for Golden State Warriors forward/center Chris Webber, who has maintained a steady level of play. The current power forwards on Dream Team II are Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson. Coleman is talented, but unpredictable. Johnson would be valuable if healthy, but his back may not be 100 percent.

That leaves a need for a bruising forward, and Webber fits the bill. He reportedly has had problems with Golden State coach Don Nelson -- who is also the coach of Dream Team II. But that rift doesn't seem to effect Webber's performance.

Not that the team needs Webber -- Jon Koncak could be the team's starting forward, and Dream Team II will still win the gold in a walk. But if the committee decides to select based on team needs and player performance, Webber's the answer.

And Orlando fans -- and basketball fans -- would like to see how a front line of Webber and O'Neal would have performed together -- if the Magic hadn't traded Webber.

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