Have fun. That’s what Magic Johnson was all about. Did anyone enjoy the game more than the First Freak of Basketball — the 6-foot-9 point guard for the Lakers? That’s debatable. The way he played, the way he smiled and the way he won, Magic invited us all to the party, and what a bash it was. He is quite possibly the first NBA star that nobody actually rooted against; maybe you weren’t for the Lakers but you definitely didn’t want to see Magic fail. Because then there was no fun. And that’s why we all watched him and were all transfixed by him. The man brought joy to the basketball world.
The entertainment epicenter in Los Angeles was in Hollywood until Magic arrived, and then Inglewood became a spinoff location. All the beautiful people suddenly gravitated to the Forum to see the player who made the game beautiful. Magic knew how to attract an audience and keep an audience and satisfy an audience. Perhaps no other player in NBA history was this perfect for the area in which he played.
Magic made entertainment a big part of his game. But it wasn’t the main part. Magic was efficient, not reckless. He was under control, not sloppy. That’s the amazing part of the player. He could take chances with a pass that other players either wouldn’t have the guts to try, or simply couldn’t try without making a mess of the play.
The no-look pass was his signature move. There was a teammate named Billy Thompson who was a role player throughout his career. Well, the biggest highlight of Billy Thompson’s life was created by Magic in a smooth sequence that defined who Magic was and how he lifted everyone around him — those in the Lakers’ uniform and those in the Forum seats.
In 1976 the New Orleans Jazz needed more fans and also a backcourt partner for Pete Maravich. They wanted Gail Goodrich, who became a free agent after starring for several years with the Lakers. In those days, teams who lost free agents had to be compensated, and so the Jazz gave the Lakers a 1979 first-round pick. It seemed like a good idea at the time … until it wasn’t. When the Jazz finished with the league’s worst record in 1979, that pick belonged to the Lakers.
On Dec. 28, 1979, an important transformation in NBA history took place, although few knew at the time. It was the very first meeting between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as professionals. Of course, there was some anticipation for this because these two squared off in the 1979 NCAA championship game that became the most-watched college game in history. And sure, there was some anxiousness to see how they fared in the NBA.
But nobody could forecast what would come for Magic and Bird and the NBA in the years that followed, the classic clashes for NBA championships, the fierce rivalry that broke ground in the NBA, the groundswell of attention that demanded bigger TV contracts and larger audiences. It all began when Magic and Bird met for the first time and changed the NBA forever.
In Magic’s rookie year, he helped the Lakers reach the NBA Finals, where they met Julius Erving and the 76ers. It was a closely contested series, as expected, until the Lakers pulled ahead 3-2. The critical Game 6 was in Philadelphia but the Lakers were literally handicapped; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar injured an ankle and didn’t make the trip.
But: Ask any true basketball fan about the historical meaning of 42-15-7 and they will say: Magic Johnson, starting at center, 1980 NBA Finals. That was Magic’s points-rebounds-assists stat line, and there’s another number that needs to be mentioned: 20. That was Magic’s age.
He wasn’t legally old enough to buy a beer, and yet Magic was asked to jump center in the biggest game of his life. What happened next was one of the greatest performances not only in NBA History, but in professional sports. Magic was about to jump-start a basketball resume that quickly became legendary.
The true essence of Magic Johnson has always been about the pass, the art of sharing and giving and doing it very entertainingly, in a way that few ever did. That, more than anything else, made Magic the consummate team player, someone who put his teammates in position to excel and flourish and ultimately, win.
That said: In the 1987 NBA Finals, Lakers vs. Celtics, Magic vs. Bird, the final championship clash between these two in the decade they owned, Magic showed something else. In a contested series, when the difference between taking control and losing it required a shot instead of a pass, Magic Johnson showed he can do that, too, if necessary.
In Game 4 of the series, the Lakers with the chance to got up 3-1, the Celtics needing to hold firm on the parquet floor of Boston Garden, the ball was in Magic’s hands in the moment of truth, with scattered seconds remaining in a tie game.
And Magic did not pass. Instead, he shot. And it was the shot.
In the steep annals of NBA championship history, how many truly memorable shots are forever frozen in time? How many shots were so massive that they earned a catchy nickname? How many were executed with a hard degree of difficulty, where Robert Parish and Kevin McHale –14 feet of long limbs — were right at the point of release and anxious to alter history with a deflection, but were denied?
As you roll back time to that series and catch a highlight that’s been replayed a gazillion times, you recognize the signature play, and the player who made it.
Magic retired from basketball in 1992 after contracting the HIV virus. It was a seismic shock to the sports world and to the and real world. The Lakers retired his jersey. He was away from basketball for the first time since he was a little kid. Although Magic won five titles, three MVPs and was a 12-time All-Star, the separation of Magic from the game was too sudden and upsetting for everyone.
But he did play in the 1992 Olympic Summer Games — the Dream Team. And that experience rekindled the flame from within Magic. And after consulting with his medical staff and the league and the Lakers, he announced plans for a comeback in the middle of the 1995-96 season.
The anticipation of his return was massive, naturally, drawing huge interest both within and beyond the NBA. He was heavier and older and he would only play the final 32 games of that season. He played power forward, not point guard. It wasn’t the Magic you once knew.
But there was something in common between the Magic of young and old: Both played basketball for the joy it brought him and us. The old Magic wanted to go out on his terms. He wanted to replace that bitter taste with something sweeter. More than anything else, he wanted to have fun again.