COACH MAGIC? DON’T GET YOUR HOPES UP

NEW YORK — So there I was, in my hotel room, watching the Lakers-Kings playoff game, and here comes NBC’s Jim Gray, and he’s interviewing Magic Johnson, who is sitting in the stands.

Gray says, “Magic, we hear you want to coach in the NBA again.”

I start paying attention.

Magic says, “Yes. I want to get back to coaching.”

Gray says, “How about Detroit?”

Now I’m really paying attention.

Magic says — I’m paraphrasing here — “It might be tough for me to coach back in my hometown, there’d be a lot of pressure, but the Pistons have a good organization, they’ve got Jerry Stackhouse …

“So yeah, I’d take a look at that, yeah.”

And I about fell out of my chair.

Now my first reaction was, “How could I have missed this?” I try to stay at least loosely plugged into the churnings of the Pistons. And I’m figuring if Magic Johnson, one the greatest to ever play the game, is on national TV saying he’d consider coaching the Pistons, well, then he surely has already met with them and — who knows? — maybe a contract is about to be signed!

So I grab the phone and call Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president — I’m figuring he’s at the office, drawing up the papers — and I say, “Joe, where am I catching you?”

And he says, “At the barbershop.”

And I say, “At the barbershop?”

“Yeah. Willie’s Barber Shop in Pontiac. I’m getting my hair cut.”

Well. It was a Sunday.

Who wouldn’t be interested?

So I ask Joe about Magic.

He says, “What about Magic?”

I tell him what I heard. There is a stunned silence, followed by a small chuckle. Then Joe says they have the game on in the barbershop but the sound is off, and he sure wishes he had heard that himself.

So I ask if there have been any conversations between Magic and the Pistons. Joe says no. None. Zero.

I ask if he’d be interested in Magic?

“Uh, yeah,” he half-laughs, “if he’s serious about it, I’d love to sit down and talk with him.”

Well, who wouldn’t? It’s not as if he isn’t qualified. Larry Bird stepped right in as head coach and almost won it all last year with Indiana. Doc Rivers came out of the broadcast booth and won Coach of the Year with Orlando. Isiah Thomas — like Bird, one of Magic’s biggest rivals — took over the Pacers last year with no bench experience.

Compared to those guys, Magic is a veteran. He at least put in a little time as head coach of the Lakers, during their flailing 1993-94 season. Magic took over for the last 16 games. He won five, lost 11, then decided coaching wasn’t for him.

A 5-11 record will do that to you.

But that was seven years ago. Things change. “Michael (Jordan) got me excited about it again,” Johnson told Gray on NBC. “Not as a player, I’m too old for that. But as a coach or running a team. I want to get back involved with this beautiful game.”

Bring Webber back, too

Now before anyone starts buying Pistons season tickets, let’s be realistic.

First of all, if Magic really wanted to coach Detroit, would he announce it on TV? Before contacting anyone in the organization? Even if Gray’s question caught him off guard, he could have said, “No comment.”

Secondly, if he does want to coach again, wouldn’t other situations be more attractive? Perhaps Portland, where the only thing more abundant than talent is embarrassment? The Trail Blazers might part with Mike Dunleavy. And wouldn’t Magic love coaching an All-Star team? Or how about Miami, where Pat Riley might take a breather? It’s a glamour town with some major talent.

On the other hand, if he did want the Pistons? They should sign him in a heartbeat. It’s a no-brainer. For starters, Magic would sell tickets (name me one other coach who’d do that), so Bill Davidson would likely pony up whatever money it took. (I can see the slogan already, “The Magic is Back!”)

And if Magic were coaching, perhaps a Chris Webber might reconsider his free-agent options. Webber and Magic, returning the glory to Detroit?

“Would he be an effective coach?” Dumars says. “If he knows how to communicate his message, absolutely.

“But the key is communicating. All that knowledge without communication is like a tree falling in the forest.”

I ask Joe, still in the barber chair, what the next move should be — I mean, besides taking a little off the top and sides?

Joe says he’ll wait and see if Johnson — or someone from his office — calls. If he’s serious, that’s the right thing to do.

Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath. TV quotes have a way of evaporating. Maybe Magic just wants to show Jordan he’s not the only guy who can use the word “comeback.”

We’ll see. Meanwhile, those of you who, like me, thought you were way behind on some major story, relax. There’s no covert operation here.

On the other hand, we now know where Dumars gets his hair cut.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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