Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson puts up his game-winning junior sky hook against the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals.

Not since Wilt Chamberlain's exploits in the early 1960s had the NBA seen individual scoring brilliance like it saw in the 1986-87 season. Michael Jordan, who had missed most of the previous season with a broken foot, had signaled what was to come when he had returned to score 63 points against the Boston Celtics in a Playoff game. Now fully healthy, Jordan tore through the league with a vengeance, scoring 3,041 points for a 37.1 ppg average and marking the first time a player had eclipsed the 3,000-point mark since Wilt Chamberlain in 1963.

Aside from Jordan, the player who had been asked to do the biggest job for his team was Magic Johnson. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar approached 40, Lakers Coach Pat Riley had asked Magic to take on more of the scoring load, in addition to running the team. Johnson responded by averaging a career-best 23.9 ppg, while still leading the league in assists with 12.2 apg. The Lakers won 65 games during the regular season and devastated the competition in the West, going 11-1 in the Western Conference Playoffs on the way to a showdown with Boston. The Celtics won 59 games, but what had been a deep bench was decimated by injuries to Bill Walton and Scott Wedman. As a result, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson each played more than 37 minutes per game, and Danny Ainge played 35. Boston showed a bit of fatigue as it was extended to seven games by both Milwaukee and Detroit before advancing to the Finals for the fourth straight year. But the Lakers were rested and ready, jumped out to a 2-0 lead, won a critical Game 4 at Boston Garden and went on to capture their fourth NBA title during the 1980s.

The NBA, a 23-team league since the Dallas Mavericks began play in the 1980-81 season, announced in April, 1987 that it would add franchises in Charlotte and Miami in 1988 and Orlando and Minnesota in 1989, expanding to 27 teams for the 1989-90 season.

"Showtime," the moniker given to the Lakers' fast-breaking, freewheeling offense, was in high gear as the Lakers took a 2-0 Finals lead on their homecourt. But Boston won Game 3 behind a 30-point effort from Bird. Game 4 came down to one sequence. With the Lakers trailing 106-104, Abdul-Jabbar was fouled, made the first and missed the second. But the rebound was batted out of bounds and ruled Lakers ball. Magic Johnson took an inbounds pass on the left side, drove into the key and was met by McHale, Bird and Parish. Magic lofted a hook shot over Boston's tall trio and when the shot found net, the Lakers led by one. With two seconds left after a timeout, Bird somehow got open for a jumper, but the shot rimmed out. The Lakers had stolen a game in Boston and would eventually win the series back in Los Angeles.

"You expect to lose on a sky-hook," Bird said later. "You don't expect it to be from Magic."