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Lyle Spencer

Magic and Kemp a perfect match on SI cover

Spencer: Magic and Kemp a perfect match

Magic and Kemp a perfect match on SI cover
LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers are hot. Sports Illustrated cover hot.

There's Earvin "Magic" Johnson in a three-piece suit standing tall, all 6-foot-9 of him, on the Dodger Stadium turf. Accompanying the beaming (what else?) part-owner is his superstar center fielder, Matt Kemp. A basketball, naturally, is in the photo. Kemp is handling it, in the apparent act of trying to score on Magic. That much-anticipated one-on-one game will have to wait.

"I've got to get better, get my hammy better," Kemp said, recovering from a left hamstring strain that interrupted his brilliant start for the team owning the Major Leagues' best record entering play on Thursday. "Then we get better and win a championship, and then I'm gonna shoot him out."

Magic, of course, busts up.

"All day long," Magic responds.

This baseball involvement is another brave new world to conquer for Magic in an extraordinary life that keeps bringing new challenges, new mountains to climb.

The standard by which all NBA point guards are measured, Magic arrived in Los Angeles 33 years ago from Michigan State, an NCAA champion, and joined forces with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to create a majestic Lakers dynasty.

Johnson's teammate now is Kemp, whose ambitions are as extravagant as those that drove Johnson to unimagined heights on and off the court.

Hardly a day goes by without Kemp making a bold declaration about his desire to reach grandiose heights, professionally and on a larger, societal scale. Magic listens and smiles that smile, knowing you have to dream big to make amazing things happen.

"Matt is the best in baseball right now," Johnson said after having completed the SI photo shoot. "I always like to hang out, be with the best. He's the best not only on the field, but off the field as well. He comes from great stock. I met his beautiful mom, and his mom reminds me of my own mom."

Christine Johnson, with her son's dazzling smile, was a welcomed sight on Lakers buses during her son's playing days when the team visited the Pistons. In her hands as she boarded were sweet potato pies for everyone to savor, including a lucky sportswriter.

Raised in a big family by parents who taught a strong work ethic by their actions, Magic has looked at every team he's ever been part of as family. What he has brought to the Dodgers, already, is incalculable.

The day this spring it became official that Magic's group, Guggenheim Baseball Partnership LLC, had produced the winning bid in former owner Frank McCourt's auction, there was a palpable reaction at the club's Spring Training camp in Glendale, Ariz.

"The Magic Man is coming," an exultant Kemp said that day in the lunch room. "That's just awesome, man. He's been a winner his whole life -- and he'll be a winner here. I'm psyched."

The Dodgers will take a 30-14 record into Friday's series opener with the Astros, their .682 winning percentage the game's best. Baltimore, at .622, is closest. The Giants, second place in the National League West, entered Thursday's game at Miami seven games behind their eternal rivals.

Perhaps it's a coincidence. Perhaps not. What is undeniable is that the Dodgers are a new operation, with a new attitude and swagger, since Johnson alighted on the scene with his irrepressible optimism and assurance that anything is possible.

All those expressions of confidence that surfaced in March in camp are manifested almost daily in extraordinary performances from stars and subs alike.

Fueled from Opening Day by Magic's presence in San Diego, Kemp had an April for the ages and was on a Triple Crown track when his hamstring injury lifted the Dodgers' foremost weapon out of the lineup on May 14. Second baseman Mark Ellis, another vital component in the blazing start, soon joined Kemp on the disabled list.

As if by, well, magic, manager Don Mattingly's club kept finding ways to win games, opening up space in the NL West race with a succession of contributions from unlikely sources. This is always one of the distinctions of a team of destiny.

The Dodgers are 7-3 without the NL's best player. Kemp hopes to be back in the lineup on Tuesday, with a pair of Minor League rehab games on tap this weekend.

Even without a bat or glove in his hands, Kemp has made his presence felt. When backup infielder Justin Sellers launched an unlikely home run on Saturday during a weekend sweep of the reigning World Series champion Cardinals, nobody inside Dodger Stadium was more thrilled -- or visible -- than Kemp.

Leaping and screaming in joy, Kemp was fortunate not to aggravate his injury. But that's who he is -- just like his main man Magic.

"When you've got a bunch of utility players playing, and they do something like [Sellers] did, it's a good thing to see a star like Matt act like that," said first-base coach Davey Lopes. "It means a lot to the guy who's not a star.

"Everybody reacts differently. That's Matt. I think he was more excited than Sellers."

Kemp is too young to remember a youthful Magic Johnson, with hair on his head, jumping into Abdul-Jabbar's stunned arms after the veteran center delivered a game-winner to open the 1979-80 NBA season. It was the kid point guard's first game, and Kareem had to ask Magic to settle down a little.

Magic never really did, sustaining that attitude through his remarkable career.

It was easy to see Kemp and Magic as kindred spirits destined to thrive together -- and share a Sports Illustrated cover such as this one carrying the headline "FUN AND GAMES IN L.A."

"I thought they were lying," Kemp said of the invitation to do the photo shoot. "We had a great time. We're gonna have a lot of great times over the next eight years I'm here -- and hopefully more.

"This is my first Sports Illustrated cover, and I'm happy to share it with the man himself. It's definitely an honor to be on the cover."

For Magic, seeing his image on the cover of national magazines is nothing new. He appeared frequently during the glory days of "Showtime." There's never been a bigger sports figure in Southern California.

Kemp couldn't have found a better man to show him the way.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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