Legends profile: Magic Johnson
Few athletes are truly unique, changing the way their sport is played with their singular skills. Earvin “Magic” Johnson was one of them.
Just how great a basketball player was Johnson? So great, perhaps, that future generations of hoop fans may wish they had entered the world years earlier — just so they could have seen Magic play in person instead of watching him only on highlight reels.
He was what Bob Cousy was to the 1950s, what Oscar Robertson was to the 1960s, what Julius Erving was to the 1970s.
Still, Earvin Johnson was even more than a revolutionary player, who, at 6-foot-9, was the tallest point guard in league history. His sublime talent elicited wonder and admiration from even the most casual basketball fan.
Whether it was a behind-the-back pass to a streaking James Worthy, a half-court swish at the buzzer or a smile that illuminated an arena, everyone who saw Johnson play took with them an indelible memory of what they had witnessed. From the moment he stepped onto the court, people pondered: How could a man so big do so many things with the ball and with his body? It was Magic.
Johnson accomplished virtually everything a player could dream of during his 13-year NBA career, all of which was spent with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a member of five championship teams. He won the Most Valuable Player Award and the Finals MVP Award three times each. He was a 12-time All-Star and a nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team. He surpassed Robertson’s career assists record, a mark he later relinquished to John Stockton. He won a gold medal with the original Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
His all-around play inspired the addition of the term “triple-double” to basketball’s lexicon, although history demands that Robertson be recognized as the first man to regularly post double figures in three statistical categories in the same game. Unfortunately for the Big O, nobody had thought of the term triple-double back in the 1960s.
Johnson did all of this while maintaining a childlike enthusiasm born of a pure love of sport and competition. Beyond all the money, success and fame, Johnson was just happy to be playing basketball.
If there was one aspect of Johnson’s game that awed people the most, it was his brilliant passing skills. He dazzled fans and dumbfounded opponents with no-look passes off the fastbreak, pinpoint alley-oops from halfcourt, spinning feeds and overhand bullets under the basket through triple teams. When defenders expected him to pass, he shot. When they expected him to shoot, he passed.
Said former Lakers swingman Michael Cooper: “There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn’t sure where he was going. Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must’ve thrown it through somebody.”
Born on August 14, 1959, Earvin Johnson Jr. grew up in Lansing, Mich., with nine brothers and sisters. His father worked in a General Motors plant; his mother was a school custodian. Young Earvin passed the time by singing on street corners with his buddies and, of course, by playing basketball. “Junior,” or “June Bug” as his neighbors called him, was on the court by 7:30 many mornings.
“I practiced all day,” Johnson told USA Weekend. “I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball.”
Johnson was first called “Magic” when he was a star at Everett High School. He was given the nickname by a sports writer who had just seen the 15-year-old prepster notch 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists. (Johnson’s mother, a devout Christian, thought the nickname was blasphemous.) As a senior, Johnson led Everett to a 27-1 record and the state title while averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.
Johnson wanted to attend college close to home, so he enrolled at Michigan State in East Lansing. He put up impressive numbers as a freshman (17.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.4 apg), leading the Spartans to a 25-5 record and the Big Ten Conference title. As an All-America sophomore Johnson directed his team to the national title in 1979, beating Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in perhaps the most anticipated (and most watched) NCAA championship game ever played.
Having accomplished all he wanted to on the college level, Johnson passed up his final two seasons and entered the 1979 NBA Draft. The Utah Jazz were supposed to draft in the first position, but the Jazz had conveyed their 1979 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers three years earlier as compensation for the free-agent signing of Gail Goodrich. Thus the Lakers took Johnson with the first overall pick.
The team had just undergone big changes: a new coach in Jack McKinney, a new owner in Dr. Jerry Buss, and seven new faces on the court. With the country’s most exciting college player in a Lakers uniform, Buss hoped the normally reserved Forum crowds would get up off their hands and onto their feet. “Showtime” was born.
Fans attending Johnson’s first game witnessed the sort of exuberance he would display throughout his entire career. After a buzzer-beating shot by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to defeat the San Diego Clippers on opening night, Johnson went berserk, distributing bone-jarring high-fives and bear hugs. At this rate, most observers thought, the kid would burn out in no time. Even Abdul-Jabbar had to tell the rookie to cool it, because there were 81 more games yet to play — and that didn’t count playoffs.
That season’s NBA Rookie of the Year Award went to Bird of the Boston Celtics. But the NBA champion was Los Angeles. The Lakers rolled to the Western Division title with a 60-22 record, the league’s second best. (Paul Westhead took over as coach after McKinney was seriously hurt in a bicycle crash 14 games into the season.) In 77 games Johnson’s numbers mirrored those of his days at Michigan State (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg). He became the first rookie to start in an NBA All-Star Game since Elvin Hayes 11 years earlier.
In the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Johnson’s performance in the series-clinching sixth game was the stuff of legend. Abdul-Jabbar was sidelined with a badly sprained ankle sustained during his 40-point effort in Game 5. Up 3-2, the Lakers could wrap things up on the 76ers’ home court.
Enter Johnson, the 20-year-old rookie. Assuming Abdul-Jabbar’s position at center, Johnson sky-hooked and rebounded the Lakers to victory with 42 points, 15 boards, seven assists and three steals. He even jumped for the opening tip. Johnson became the first rookie ever to win the Finals MVP Award. The stunning effort exemplified his uncanny ability to do whatever the Lakers needed in order to win.
In the Los Angeles Times, Westhead said of his amazing rookie: “We all thought he was a movie-star player, but we found out he wears a hard hat. It’s like finding a great orthopedic surgeon who can also operate a bulldozer.”
The next year was not nearly as kind to Johnson or to the Lakers. In the first month, 7-2 Tom Burleson of the Atlanta Hawks fell on Johnson’s left knee, forcing him to miss 45 games with torn cartilage. He came back in time for the Lakers’ best-of-3 playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Johnson had made only 2 of his 13 field-goal attempts when he tossed up an airball as time ran out in Game 3. The Lakers lost the game 89-86 and the series.
Johnson and the Lakers rebounded in 1981-82, winning their division and defeating the 76ers in another six-game NBA Finals in which Johnson repeated as MVP. The season also had its share of ugliness. Early on, Westhead wanted to restructure the offense in a way that Johnson believed would have reduced his role. In a widely reported incident, Johnson exploded in the lockerroom after a game in Utah. “I can’t play here anymore. I want to leave. I want to be traded,” he was quoted as saying. Reporters waited for the signal that Johnson was joking. It didn’t come.
Westhead was fired the next day and replaced with assistant coach Pat Riley. At Riley’s first home game, fans at the Forum booed Johnson during introductions. In Seattle he was jeered whenever he touched the ball. He paid the price in the All-Star balloting and was not selected as a starter for the only time in his career other than his injury season. It took Johnson’s stellar playoff performance to silence the hecklers.
On the court, Johnson’s play was as splendid as it was consistent. He won his second consecutive steals title that season and for the remainder of his career would never dip below averages of 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists.
The two years following the Westhead flap were great for Johnson individually but tough for Los Angeles. Johnson won the first two of his four league assists titles and continued to improve upon his already brilliant all-around play. In the 1982-83 NBA Finals against rival Philadelphia, however, Lakers Norm Nixon, Worthy and Bob McAdoo were all hampered by injury. The 76ers swept the series.
By the 1984 NBA Finals, Nixon was gone, Abdul-Jabbar was pushing 40 and Johnson had signed a then record 25-year, $25 million contract. The grueling seven-game series against Boston marked a low point in Johnson’s career. His playmaking gaffes at the end of Games 2, 4 and 7 contributed to the Lakers’ defeat.
With Johnson improving his outside shot and setting assists records, the Lakers won three NBA titles in the next four years. The first of this string came in the 1985 Finals win over their nemesis the Celtics. After being destoyed in Game 1 of the series ,148-114, dubbed the “Memorial Day Massacre” as the game was played on that holiday, the Lakers would rebound to take the series in six games. The decisive victory came on the Garden parquet floor 111-100 and marked the first time the Lakers defeated the Celtics in a Finals after eight previous failures strecthing back to when the Lakers played in Minneapolis.
During the 1986-87 season, with Abdul-Jabbar sidelined briefly with an eye infection, Johnson did something most pro scouts had said he couldn’t do: score. He pumped in 38 points against Houston and then a career-high 46 points in the next game against the Sacramento Kings. His 23.9 season average was the highest of his career.
That season, Johnson was named NBA Most Valuable Player. It had taken him eight years, in which time Bird had landed three MVP Awards. Johnson had wanted it badly. Before the winner was announced, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, “Right now, he’s 3 and I’m 0. That bugs me a little.” (He would eventually tie Bird in the MVP count, claiming the award again in 1989 and 1990.)
Johnson won his third Finals MVP Award in 1987, following a six-game victory over Boston. It was also the year that Johnson took Abdul-Jabbar’s place as leader of the team. In games of H-O-R-S-E during practice, the 40-year-old center taught his protégé how to shoot a sky-hook. Johnson quickly mastered his own version of the shot, which he used to make the game-winning basket in the Game 4 victory at the Garden, 107-106. That win propelled the Lakers to a second Finals’ win over the Celtics in three years.
In 1988, the Lakers edged the Detroit Pistons in a bitter seven-game series to become the first team since the 1968-69 Celtics to repeat as champs. The following two seasons Johnson averaged more than 20 points and led the Lakers to two more division titles. In 1988-89, Abdul-Jabbar’s final season, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in the NBA Finals and the Lakers were swept by a well-rounded Pistons team. The next year Los Angeles suffered its earliest departure from the playoffs in nine years, losing to the Phoenix Suns in the Conference Semifinals.
Johnson in the 1990-91 campaign helped the Lakers to a 58-24 record. After upsetting a Clyde Drexler-led Portland TrailBlazers team that won the Pacific Division in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers made another trip to the NBA Finals. The Lakers lost to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in five games, but it was the ninth time Johnson had reached the Finals in his 12 seasons.
Before the 1991-92 campaign Johnson stunned the world with the announcement that he had tested positive for the HIV virus and was retiring from the NBA. He made a triumphant appearance at the All-Star Game that season, however, earning the game’s MVP Award and leading the West to a 153-113 victory. He also began a campaign to promote AIDS awareness, an effort for which he received the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
Johnson went on to play for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team, write a book about safe sex, run several businesses he had started as a player, work for NBC as a television commentator and explore the possibility of purchasing an NBA franchise. With 16 games left to play in the 1993-94 season, he replaced Randy Pfund as the head coach of the Lakers.
The team was fighting for a playoff berth when Johnson assumed the reins, and Los Angeles immediately won five straight. But after the club lost five of its next six outings, Johnson announced that he would not return as coach the following season.
“I want to go home,” he told theAssociated Press. “It’s never been my dream to coach. I want to own, to be a businessman. You’ve got to chase your dreams.” Johnson got his wish in June 1994, when he purchased a share of the Lakers and became a part-owner.
In 1995 Johnson got involved in another business venture, opening a chain of movie theaters in minority neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, an enterprise he later took to other cities.. He also continued to entertain fans around the world when he took his barnstorming basketball team (made up of former college and NBA players) to Asia and Australia.
But he wasn’t through with the NBA. After sitting out 4 1/2 seasons he made a comeback late in the 1995-96 campaign, playing the final 32 games of the regular season for the Lakers. By then he had bulked up to 255 pounds and did as much of his playing at power forward as he did at guard. After the Lakers were ousted by Houston in the First Round of the 1996 playoffs, Johnson retired once again.
In his 13 NBA seasons Johnson compiled 17,707 points (19.5 ppg), 6,559 rebounds (7.2 rpg) and 10,141 assists (11.2 apg) in addition to 1,724 steals, good for ninth place on the all-time list. He also holds the top marks for most All-Star Game assists (127) and three-point baskets (10).
In 1996-97, Johnson was selected to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 2002, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Was he the best player of his day? Another all-time great thinks so.
“Magic is head-and-shoulders above everybody else,” Larry Bird once observed in the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’ve never seen [anybody] as good as him.”
On Feb. 21, 2017, the Lakers hired Johnson as the team’s president of basketball operations. Before the Los Angeles Lakers’ final game of the 2018-19 season, Magic Johnson stunned the team and the NBA world at large by stepping down from his post. While he no longer fills that role for the Lakers, Johnson has many thriving business interests along with ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles FC.