1980 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers 4, Philadelphia 2
Rookie Makes the Lakers Believe in Magic
A Michigan sportswriter first gave Earvin Johnson the nickname Magic. "Magic" because of his beauty of a smile. "Magic" because of his uncanny ability with a basketball. But mostly he was "Magic" because he somehow transformed good teams into great ones.
He did that everywhere he played. At Everett High School in East Lansing, Mich. At Michigan State. And finally with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Los Angeles Lakers needed many things in the fall of 1979. They needed rebounding help for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the frontcourt, and, as Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote projected, Magic filled in nicely as a power forward on the defensive end.
The Lakers also needed help for Norm Nixon in the backcourt. Although Nixon was a young, promising point guard, the Lakers eventually moved him to shooting guard, and -- as Heathcote had also projected -- they gave Magic the ball at the point.
Perhaps the team's biggest need as it opened the 1980s was enthusiasm. No one player needed it more than Abdul-Jabbar, who had carried the Lakers for half a decade. During that time, the team had never reached the Finals, which meant the giant center was blamed for this shortcoming. Abdul-Jabbar's response to the circumstances was to pull even deeper within his shell. His already cool approach to the game -- and the hoopla surrounding it -- became even cooler.
Magic, of course, changed all that.
For the 20-year-old Magic, life was a joyous journey. The team eventually took to calling him "Young Buck" (later shortened to Buck) for his remarkable zeal. When Abdul-Jabbar won their opening game at San Diego with a last-minute sky-hook, Magic smothered him in a youthful celebratory hug. The big center was visibly startled. "Take it easy, kid," he said. "We've got 81 more of these to play."
The Lakers had hired Jack Ramsay's veteran assistant, Jack McKinney, a man enamored of the running game, to lead the team. McKinney promptly set up an offense geared to Magic's abilities, and he acquired Jim Chones, the veteran forward, to help Abdul-Jabbar up front. It worked beautifully.
Then tragedy struck. McKinney suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident. He had been headed to a tennis match with his best friend and assistant coach, Paul Westhead. For a time, it appeared McKinney might not make it. At the very least, he was faced with months of convalescence. So Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar, served as interim coach and the Lakers moved on.
They won, but they weren't entirely happy. Nixon made the adjustment to shooting guard well enough, but the veterans complained that Magic was controlling the ball too much, keeping it to himself. The coaches cautioned him as well, and eventually Magic changed.
"Magic had to learn to keep everybody in the game," said Nixon at the time. "He was losing 'em. He had to make an effort, and he did. I like playing with him much more now. We complement one another."
Magic's presence certainly was good for Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers' center won the league's MVP Award for an unprecedented sixth time (Bill Russell had won five).
The Sixers, now coached by Billy Cunningham, had finished the regular season at 59-23, just two games behind Boston. They brought a strong, veteran lineup to face the Lakers for the 1980 title, with Julius Erving still near the top of his high-flying game.
The 6-foot-11 Darryl Dawkins joined 7-foot-1 Caldwell Jones in the frontcourt; both players had matured since their struggles against Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals. The sixth man was Bobby Jones. Besides being the best defensive forward in basketball, Jones was an extraordinary leaper and excellent at filling the lane on the fast break. He gave Philadelphia 13 points per game off the bench. If that wasn't enough in the frontcourt, the Sixers also got good minutes and 11.6 points per game from veteran Steve Mix.
Running the break for Philly was an excellent young point guard, Maurice Cheeks, and they still had Henry Bibby as a third guard. In February the Sixers had acquired shooter extraordinaire Lionel Hollins from Portland in exchange for a draft pick. Hollins filled in nicely for veteran Doug Collins, who had suffered a knee injury.
The matchup at center pitting Caldwell Jones and Dawkins against Abdul-Jabbar was particularly intriguing. The Lakers center claimed the first game for himself and his team with 33 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks and five assists on the way to a 109-102 win in the Forum. For the first time in years, though, Abdul-Jabbar didn't have to do it alone for Los Angeles. Nixon had 23 points and Jamaal Wilkes finished with 20 while the Lakers did an excellent double-teaming job on Erving.
Magic, too, played up to his potential, contributing 16 points, nine assists and 10 rebounds. More and more in the playoffs, Westhead went to Magic as the power forward on offense, while Nixon and sixth man Michael Cooper ran the backcourt. "That's our best lineup," the coach had said earlier in the playoffs.
Cunningham decided Dawkins didn't need the assignment of guarding Abdul-Jabbar. That task went to Caldwell Jones, the team's frontcourt defensive specialist. Even with Jones' defense, Kareem still got 38 points in Game 2. However, nothing else seemed to work for Los Angeles. Philly's team effort was impressive, as the Sixers virtually shut down the vaunted Lakers fast break, and did it without fouling.
Erving scored 12 points in the first quarter, beginning the game with a dunk over Abdul-Jabbar. Dawkins stepped outside to hit several jumpers on his way to 25 points. And Cheeks matched Erving's game total of 23 points, while Bobby Jones provided his usual 13 off the bench.
Philly had led by as much as 20 in the fourth period, but the Lakers roared back, trimming the lead to 105-104 late in the game. Then Bobby Jones popped in a jumper with seven seconds left, and that was enough for a 107-104 Philly win that tied the series at a game apiece.
Los Angeles quickly relieved the Sixers of the home-court advantage. For Game 3, it was the Lakers making a defensive switch, moving Chones to cover Dawkins. With only the nonshooting Caldwell Jones to worry about, Abdul-Jabbar parked his big frame in the lane and dared the Sixers to drive in. Meanwhile, Westhead switched Magic to covering Hollins on the perimeter, which stifled Philly's outside game. The result of this double shutdown was a 15-point Lakers lead in the first quarter.
However, Erving took charge in the second period with an array of shots that included a dunk, scoop and finger-roll. The Lakers called a timeout, talked things over, and finished the period by surrending only one more dunk to The Doctor. Over the last two minutes of the period Los Angeles went on a 9-0 run to take a 14-point lead into halftime.
From there Kareem and Co. powered to a 111-101 win and a 2-1 lead in the series. Once again the Lakers' big guy put up big numbers: 33 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three assists. And once again he got plenty of help from Nixon, Johnson and Wilkes.
As expected, Philly lashed back for Game 4, aided by the officials. In the game's first minute, Los Angeles was hit with an illegal defense warning. The lead switched back and forth throughout the first three periods, but the Sixers took control in the fourth. That was when Dr. J unleashed one of his finest highlight moves. Off the dribble, he scooted around Lakers reserve Mark Landsberger on the right baseline to launch himself toward the basket. In midair, Erving encountered Abdul-Jabbar. Somehow, the Doctor moved behind the backboard and wrapped his right arm behind Abdul-Jabbar to flip it in. It was pure magic, the Philly variety, and the Sixers went on to even the series with a 105-102 win. Dawkins led them with 26 points, and Erving had 23.
All of this served to set up a marvelous Game 5 back at the Forum. Los Angeles held a two-point lead late in the third quarter when Abdul-Jabbar twisted his left ankle and went to the locker room. At that point he had 26 points and was carrying the Lakers. Magic's performance thus far had been uneven, but the rookie took over with the team captain out. He scored six points and added an assist as Los Angeles moved up by eight.
That was enough to buy time for Abdul-Jabbar, who limped back into the game early in the fourth period. His appearance aroused the Forum regulars and, despite the bad ankle, he acknowledged their support by scoring 14 points down the stretch. With the game tied at 103 and only 33 seconds left, Abdul-Jabbar scored, drew the foul and finished Philly by completing the three-point play. Los Angeles won 108-103 and took a 3-2 series lead.
The next morning the Lakers arrived at Los Angeles International Airport for their flight to Philadelphia and learned that Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't be making the trip. His ankle was so bad that doctors had advised him to stay home and try to get ready for Game 7. Westhead was worried about the effect the news would have on the team. In a private meeting, the coach told Magic he would have to move to center. No problem, the young guard replied. He had played center in high school and loved challenges such as the one he was about to face.
When the team boarded its flight to Philadelphia, Magic plopped himself down in the first-class seat always set aside for Abdul-Jabbar. Then he went through Abdul-Jabbar's normal routine, stretching out in the seat and pulling a blanket over his head. This done, Magic looked back at his coach and winked. "Never fear," he told his teammates. "E.J. is here."
Somehow the folks in Philly never really believed Los Angeles would head into the game without its captain. Radio stations reported regular sightings of Abdul-Jabbar in the airport. One taxi driver even claimed to have taken the Lakers center to his hotel. Cunningham was just as distrusting as the man on the street. "I'll believe he's not coming when the game ends and I haven't seen him," the Philadelphia coach told the writers.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were almost too loose, Westhead feared. Magic was unchanged; about the only thing that punctured his mood were reporters' questions about his thoughts for Game 7. It was perfect, Johnson told his teammates later. Nobody expects us to win here. In reality, most of the Lakers figured they didn't have a chance.
But when they arrived at the Spectrum that Friday, May 16, they were greeted by the sounds of carpenters hammering out an awards presentation platform. The NBA required that Philadelphia provide some facility to present the trophy, just in case Los Angeles happened to win.
With that last blast of confidence pushing them sky-high, the Lakers took the floor. Magic grinned broadly as he stepped up to jump center against Dawkins. The Sixers seemed hesitant. Los Angeles went up 7-0, then 11-4. Finally Philly broke back in the second quarter to take a 52-44 lead. Westhead stopped play and told his men to collapse more in the middle, because Mix had come off the bench to knife inside for 16 points. The Lakers listened and closed to a 60-60 tie at the half.
Los Angeles opened the third period with a 14-0 run, keyed by Wilkes, who had 16 points in the quarter. But the Sixers drew close again in the fourth period.
With a little over five minutes left, it was 103-101 Lakers. Westhead called another timeout and made one last attempt to charge up his tired players. They responded with a furious run over the next 76 seconds to go up by seven. Then Magic scored nine points down the stretch to end it. Final score: Lakers 123, Sixers 107.
Throughout the roster, the NBA champion Lakers had something to celebrate. Wilkes had a career-best outing, scoring 37 points and snaring 10 rebounds. And Chones lived up to his vow to shut down the middle. He finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds, and held Dawkins to 14 points and a scant four rebounds. Cooper scored 16 points, and Landsberger contributed 10 boards.
The big news, of course, was Magic, who was simply that. He scored 42 points, including all 14 of his free-throw attempts. He added 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. "It was amazing, just amazing," said Erving, who led Philly with 27 points.
"Magic was outstanding. Unreal," agreed the injured Doug Collins, who had watched from the sideline. "I knew he was good but I never realized he was great."
Johnson was the hands-down choice as series MVP. "What position did I play?" Magic responded to reporters afterward. "Well, I played center, a little forward, some guard. I tried to think up a name for it, but the best I could come up with was CFG-Rover."
Then, in the postgame interview on national television, Magic turned to the camera and addressed Abdul-Jabbar back home.
"We know you're hurtin', Big Fella," he said. "But we want you to get up and do a little dancin' tonight."
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