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Lakers star draws plenty of praise

LOS ANGELES -- Magic Johnson and Showtime made their debut Wednesday facing Chick Hearn Court outside Staples Center.

They will be there forever.

A 17-foot bronze statue of the former Los Angeles Lakers' star
was unveiled at dusk before several hundred fans and a handful of
former teammates and dignitaries including NBA Commissioner David
Stern and Mayor James K. Hahn.

Appropriately, the sculpted figure shows Johnson dribbling with
his right hand and pointing with his left index finger as if
leading a fast break, which he did so often for the Lakers from
1979-91 and briefly in 1996.

"Man, 25 years ago, coming here to this great city, I never
expected anything like this," Johnson said. "This statue
represents every player that I played with. It's not about me, it's
about the team and the way we played together.

"I am so amazed. This is just crazy. What a day! Wow! What a
day!"

Now 44, Johnson was the maestro of Showtime of the 1980s, when
the Lakers won five NBA championships. The team played at the Forum
in nearby Inglewood during that time, moving to Staples Center in
downtown Los Angeles in 1999.

Johnson's Hall of Fame career was cut short in November 1991
when he tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. He returned
to play the second half of the 1995-96 season before retiring for
good.

A minority owner and vice president of the Lakers, Johnson has
been very successful in the business world. He also established the
Magic Johnson Foundation, which has worked to raise funds for
community-based organizations dealing with HIV/AIDS education and
provide programs to meet the educational needs of urban residents.

"He's been more than a basketball player, he's been more than a
winner. He's been a person who's left his mark on the city of Los
Angeles, the NBA, all over the world," said Jerry West, a former
Lakers star player, coach and executive.

"For all of his accomplishments, the thing I liked most about
him is he's been so approachable," said West, now president of
basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. "I think he
smiles in his sleep."

It was Johnson's magnetic smile and unique style of play that
breathed life into the NBA in the 1980s -- after popularity had
waned.

"He played the game with flair, but he had more substance than
he had flair," West said. "You win the game with substance."

Former teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalled Johnson's first
game with the Lakers. A last-second shot by Abdul-Jabbar off a pass
from Johnson meant victory, and Johnson immediately put a bearhug
on his older teammate.

"All of I sudden, I thought I had become a Siamese twin,"
Abdul-Jabbar recalled with a smile. "I was trying to stand up
straight and enjoy this victory. Magic had me in a hold. That type
of enthusiasm was infectious."

Abdul-Jabbar took Johnson aside in the Lakers' locker room
afterward, reminding him there were 81 games left on the schedule.

"That story epitomizes Magic's energy for the game,"
Abdul-Jabbar said.

The first person Johnson acknowledged following the unveiling
was Hearn, the Lakers' longtime play-by-play announcer who died at
age 85 on Aug. 5, 2002 of head injuries sustained in a fall at his
home three days earlier. Chick Hearn Court is a street outside the
arena.

Among the fans on hand was 40-year-old Joseph Bruce of
Inglewood.

"I've supported Magic over the years," said Bruce, who wore a
jersey with Johnson's name and No. 32 on the back. "He was one of
the greatest team players of all time. He's been an inspiration for
what he's done on the court and in the community."

Johnson also had a statue of himself unveiled at Michigan State
last fall. He led the Spartans to the NCAA championship in 1979
before leaving school early to turn pro at the age of 20.