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Sudden Impact

July 11, 2005
July 11, 2005

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July 11, 2005

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Sudden Impact

[MAGIC JOHNSON] A quarter century ago in the NBA Finals an effervescent rookie took his team--and the league--on his shoulders and lifted it to greatness

But the most important date of all may have been May 16, 1980. On that Friday night at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the 76ers, the 20-year-old Magic moved from point guard to center, dominated every facet of the game and led the Lakers to their first championship since 1972. It remains the singular demonstration of all-around ability in the history of the Finals, perhaps in the history of basketball. And it announced nothing less than this: I'm here to save the game.

This is an article from the July 11, 2005 issue Original Layout

Some of the pieces of what the NBA would become were in place by then. Bird had arrived to resurrect the Boston Celtics and begin a cross-continental rivalry with Magic's Lakers. Julius Erving was still an oh-wow player whose Sixers would, three seasons later, win the championship. Young NBA lawyer David Stern was just starting to demonstrate the kind of imaginative thinking that would help "grow" the league (to use one of his favorite words) when he became commissioner in 1984.

But the NBA was hurting. Several teams were rumored to be on the verge of folding. With rare exceptions such as Dr. J., there was little connection between the primarily African-American player base and the primarily white fans. The consequences were most obvious in the league's television deal with CBS, which from 1973 to '81 broadcast some Finals games on tape-delay rather than live. Think about that: The NBA's premier event consigned to late-night TV, after most viewers had watched their sitcoms and gone to bed. Cable was in its infancy, and the Internet was little more than a dream. So what CBS wanted, CBS got. Whatever tenuous hold the NBA had developed on the American public during the Celtics dynasty of the '60s, or the New York Knicks' championships in the early '70s, was gone.

The joint entry of Magic and Bird offered a significant public relations opportunity. True, there had been doubts about them. Bird was a little too slow and a little too white. Magic had personality and pizzazz, but he couldn't really shoot, and, well, maybe he was a little too black. Yet the yearlings had addressed most of those concerns by the postseason. Bird had averaged 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds and led the Celtics, who'd won just 29 games the previous season, to 61 wins, the greatest turnaround in NBA history to that point. Magic had averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists and led the Lakers to the Pacific Division championship. Bird had beaten out Magic for Rookie of the Year, and, predictably, the subtext of race--had Bird won because he was a white player in a sport desperately trying to appeal to a white audience?--became part of the story. It continued to be so throughout their intricately intertwined careers.

The finals matchup between the Lakers and the Sixers was considered a pick-'em series. L.A. had home court advantage in the 2-2-1-1-1 format, but Philly was at peak form, coming off a five-game victory over Bird's Celtics in the East finals. The teams split the first four games. The Lakers, back home for Game 5, won 108-103 to take a 3-2 series lead, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: Abdul-Jabbar had suffered a badly sprained left ankle. The next morning, as the Lakers boarded their commercial flight to Philadelphia, their center remained at his home in Bel Air. (Los Angeles would also be without the services of power forward Spencer Haywood, who had been suspended by the team for disciplinary reasons after Game 2.) However Magic might light up the screen and dazzle with his playmaking, the Lakers would surely be lost in Game 6. So Magic decided, Why don't I be Magic and Kareem?

Out he strode to the circle to jump center, the 6'9" point guard against the Sixers' 7'1" Caldwell Jones. Magic giggled as Jones's face registered surprise. "I didn't know whether to stand with my right foot forward or my left," Magic would say later. Johnson didn't really jump, but from that point on he dominated the game. He went to the high post and found Michael Cooper underneath for a layup. He used his smarts and his rear end to burrow inside, grab a defensive rebound and start a fast break. He got the ball inside and repeatedly took it to the hoop, strong, for layups.

The Sixers were discombobulated; they simply had no answer for Magic. By the end of the 123-107 Lakers victory, Magic had 42 points, seven assists, three steals and one block, having played 47 of 48 minutes. He couldn't jump--but he grabbed 15 rebounds. He couldn't shoot--but he drained every one of his 14 free throws. After the game, in a locker room bereft of celebratory champagne (Who thought the visitors would need any?), the MVP of the 1980 Finals demonstrated his diplomatic chops. "Big Fella," Magic said, addressing Kareem through the TV cameras, "I did it for you. I know your ankle hurts, but I want you to get up and dance."

L.A. would win four more championships in the '80s, and Magic would be Finals MVP again in '82 and '87. But his impact in that first title series was the most indelible. And the impact of that Game 6 was, though tape-delayed almost everywhere, seismic. The Lakers won? Without Abdul-Jabbar? Magic played what position? He had how many points? What did he say to Kareem after the game? Man, that guy must be something!

By the following season, when Bird would earn his first championship ring, the Finals had made it to prime time. The sport seemed prime-time too. Team play, versatility, fundamentals, fun--all of that was back. No doubt Jordan took the NBA to a higher level when his Chicago Bulls began winning championships in 1991, but Magic got it started on that Friday night in Philadelphia.

Years later, as I sat with Magic in an outdoor café in Los Angeles, I wondered about that rookie season of 1979-80. The gist of the interview had been about how well Magic had done in the decade since he announced he was HIV-positive in 1992. His business empire included shopping plazas, movie theaters, restaurants and a record company. (Those enterprises continue today; his business interests are now valued at more than $700 million.)

The subject moved easily and pleasantly to his rivalry with Bird. In a lifetime in which he never failed to open his mouth when someone stuck a microphone in front of it, one of Magic's greatest accomplishments is that he never had anything but praise for his greatest rival. I asked Magic if he should've been rookie of the year in '80.

"No way," said Magic. "Larry was great that year. Larry was great every year." Then he got a big smile on his face. "But, man, I did get it done in those Finals, didn't I?"

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COLOR PHOTOJEFF LEWIS/ICON SMISAME OL' MAGIC His $700 million business empire hasn't dimmed that winning smile.COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Rich ClarksonCENTER OF ATTENTION Filling in for the injured Abdul-Jabbar, Magic scored 42 points in 47 minutes in the decisive Game 6 against Philly. COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (MAGIC)COAST-TO-COAST The cross-country rivalry between Magic's Lakers and the Celtics helped revitalize the NBA.COLOR PHOTOTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP (CLINTON)COLOR PHOTOCAPITOLCOLOR PHOTOCORBIS (J.R.)COLOR PHOTOCOLOR PHOTORAFAEL PEREZ/REUTERS (CARTER)