Magic, Indeed

20 years later, Magic Johnson remains a force of nature

Dick Raphael (NBA/Getty Images)
Twenty years after being handed what the world assumed a death sentence, Magic Johnson still tiptoes through tulips. He seemed the most blessed athlete we’d ever seen – the 100-watt smile powering an incandescent charisma – and then, all of a sudden, it seemed the gods were punishing him for his magical first 32 years by afflicting him with the HIV virus. On Nov. 7, 1991, that was as good as gone.

Twenty years later, he’s still Magic, blazing new trails, a business dynamo, perhaps a future NFL, NBA or baseball owner, as big a star in Los Angeles and Michigan as he ever was.

Life worked out the way it was supposed to for Earvin Johnson, who even before the explosion of AAU basketball and the advent of the Internet that combine to make precocious 16-year-olds household names, was widely known even before he arrived at Michigan State in the fall of 1977 as an 18-year-old at the head of a ballyhooed freshman class led by New York’s Albert King and Philadelphia’s Gene Banks.

King went to Maryland and Banks to Duke and both were good enough to get to the NBA, Banks helping Duke to the national championship game as a freshman. But as sophomores, it was Magic who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for its 1978-79 basketball preview issue, adorned in a tuxedo, one of the magazine’s most iconic cover shots.

There has never been a more irresistible basketball player than Magic. You can argue for Jordan or Wilt or Kareem or the Big O, but Magic Johnson belongs in any conversation – anywhere and every day – for best basketball player who’s ever breathed. He locked up my vote long ago.

He might have been a Piston. Jack McCloskey tried. His first act upon taking over as Pistons GM in December 1979, just weeks into Magic’s NBA career, was to offer any four players, and then any six, and finally his entire roster to the Lakers for their rookie point guard.

But, yes, life worked out the way it was supposed to for Earvin Johnson. He almost left college after his freshman year at State. He even met with management of the Kansas City Kings, who had the No. 2 pick in 1978, and word is they offered him a five-year deal for just under $1 million. Those closest to him were pretty sure he was going to take the deal and leave … until he didn’t.

Can anyone picture Magic Johnson playing out his career in Kansas City or Sacramento, where the Kings soon moved? Or anywhere but Los Angeles, where he fit like a glove – full of star power, full of fun, yet fully focused on winning?

When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sunk a buzzer beater to win the 1979-80 season opener, Magic leapt into his arms and celebrated like it was Game 7 of the Finals, flummoxing the venerable Kareem, who looked at the rookie as if he had just sprouted asparagus from his scalp. It was classic Magic. There was never a doubt that he loved basketball, but there was never a doubt that he loved winning, either. He wasn’t merely the greatest showman of his era, he was unsurpassed as a competitor, too.

So he never got to play for the Pistons, the team he grew up following, dribbling that basketball along the Lansing sidewalks from home to the park and back, but Magic Johnson forever has a place in Pistons lore for the role he played in their ascendancy. The two most storied franchises in NBA history are the Celtics and Lakers, and before the Pistons could be champions, they were required to dismantle both of them, in an era when they boasted the NBA’s two greatest players – indeed, the two players most responsible for pulling the NBA out of its 1970s malaise – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

The Pistons would have to face the Lakers in two successive NBA Finals before winning their first championship. And the question of if the Pistons would have won in 1989 had Magic not pulled up lame with a fluke hamstring injury in Game 2 will forever linger. But the record will show the Celtics never won another title in Bird’s era after the Pistons dismissed them from the 1988 playoffs and the Lakers never won another in Magic’s time after the Pistons swept the ’89 Finals.

He closed the Silverdome – Game 5 of the 1988 NBA Finals would be the last Pistons game played there – and helped launch The Palace’s inaugural season in grand fashion. Whenever the Lakers came to town, Magic’s mother, Christine, would cook up a storm, a soul food feast, and Magic himself would be carrying huge trays of sweet potato pie – that seemed to be everyone’s favorite dish – into the old visitor’s locker room at the Silverdome.

He won a high school championship at Lansing Everett and a college title at Michigan State and five rings with the Lakers and he did it all by 32, when he was the biggest star in a star-packed Hollywood constellation. The town’s greatest movie stars rimmed the Forum back then, but when Magic spilled out of the locker room, they’d cram into a corridor that led to the court and wait to catch a glimpse of him, reduced to so many groupies as he choreographed the Showtime Lakers, the best show in town. Sparks flew off of him.

They still do. Twenty years after being handed what the world assumed a death sentence, they still do.