No professional sports league is as dependent on the cult of personality as the NBA, and now it has, in one brightly wrapped grab bag, two of the world's most famous athletes going at each other smile for smile, quote for quote, spin move for spin move. Yes, the Magic and Michael made-for-TV miniseries, otherwise known as the NBA Finals, began at Chicago Stadium on Sunday. Game 1 ended, quite properly, with Magic Johnson throwing a pass and Michael Jordan taking a shot. Johnson connected, Jordan missed, and the Los Angeles Lakers crept away with a 93-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls in a game that, almost impossibly, was as good as advertised.
The NBA has never seen anything like this. Sure, for two years running, in 1988 and '89, the Finals brought together Magic and his close buddy, the Detroit Pistons' Isiah Thomas, to exchange pregame smooches at center court. Compared with Jordan, however, Thomas is hardly a blip on the personality radar screen. Before that, in '84, '85 and '87, Magic had the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird as a foil, but that was less a one-on-one personality battle than a confrontation between two storied teams.
What can you say about a matchup that offers a one-man conglomerate (Jordan) and the ultimate sunshine warrior (Johnson)? "You can't overhype Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan," said Laker reserve Mychal Thompson last Saturday afternoon. He looked around at a huge throng of reporters. "Well, you'll try. But, nope, it can't be done. Talent, leadership, winning—Magic and Michael are the ultimate in all of those things. They're it." Because they're it, Sunday's game attained a hefty overnight rating of 16.4 for NBC, which has already moved Game 4 (in L.A.) and, should it be played, Game 7 (in Chicago) to prime time from their traditional Sunday afternoon slots.
The irony is that this season, for the first time since Jordan came into the league, in 1984, the Bulls had gotten away from the "one-man team" label. Similarly, Johnson is no longer the fast-breaking, Showtime quarterback, because the Lakers, under rookie coach Mike Dunleavy, are now playing a down-tempo power game. Note that they took only 66 shots in Sunday's game, which tied a championship-series record—the Lakers set it against the New York Knicks in 1970—for fewest field goal attempts. Nonetheless, as soon as Los Angeles turned back the Portland Trail Blazers 91-90 in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to earn the right to meet the Bulls, who had swept Detroit in the Eastern finals, it was Michael versus Magic, the Prince of Midair vs. the King of the Hill, Nike vs. Converse, Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, McDonald's vs. Kentucky Fried Chicken. Though the principals tried mightily to deflect attention from themselves, even they couldn't pretend otherwise.
June 9, 1991
Said Jordan, "It's great for the league, having the two best players going against each other." Any arguments there?
Said Johnson, "Sure, it's a little personal. I mean, me going against Michael Jordan in the Finals. It's what you live for, right?" Would Magic be getting this worked up to play, say, Charles Barkley?
One of the intriguing aspects of the MJ-MJ relationship is how badly it started. Jordan felt, rightly or wrongly, that Johnson was partly responsible for, or at least tacitly endorsed, a plan to keep the ball away from Jordan in the 1985 All-Star Game. Johnson was on the other team, of course, but the freeze-out was, in Jordan's mind, the brainchild of Thomas. There has always been tension between Jordan and Thomas—it certainly was not alleviated by this year's bitterly contested Bulls-Pistons series—and Jordan automatically and not unreasonably put Magic in Isiah's camp. The Michael-Magic feud simmered until Johnson decided enough was enough during the 1987-88 season.
"It was up to me to take the initiative to end it, because Michael was the young guy and I was the veteran," said Magic, who is four years Jordan's senior. "I told him, 'We can't be separated like this. I respect you too much, and I'm sure you respect me.' When men come together and respect each other, you can straighten anything out."
Johnson is one of the few athletes in the world who can say something like that and sound believable. For his part, Jordan says of the old rivalry, "Magic and I are good friends now. We had a rocky start for no real reason [although Jordan didn't originally believe it was for no real reason]. Before, we hadn't known each other as people. Then we got to know each other, and that's when the friendship began."
Moreover, only in the past few years has Johnson put together a business team, a package of endorsements and an investment portfolio that he perceives to be equal to his celebrity. Jordan, by dint of his spectacular play in college, the Olympics and his rookie NBA season and the sagacious management of ProServ, had all those things, and that grated on many in the NBA, including Magic. But Johnson now realizes that, as he said last week, "there's enough for everybody."
Certainly there's enough for MJ and MJ, both of whom earn fortunes off the court. "The money I get from the Lakers is—how can I say it?—small," says Johnson. Small is the right word, relatively speaking. Both players are somewhat underpaid by NBA standards. This season Jordan's salary is about $2.5 million and Johnson's about $2.4 million. As for their moonlighting incomes, estimates vary widely, but Jordan is believed to earn at least $10 million a year from endorsements and Johnson $9 million.
In many popularity polls of sports figures, they rank one-two—with Jordan generally being the one on top—and both seem to appeal to black and white, male and female, young and old. They have a knack for signing autographs on the move, for smiling through chaos and disappointment and for leaving people happy. They are masters of the mob scene.
Among the players, Johnson is more popular and more respected—a small segment of the NBA considers Jordan too flashy, too cocky, too rich, too self-centered, too something. But those feelings are undetectable in Magic's case. Here is a player who has been at the top of his profession for 12 years, one who has sometimes been outspoken, has always been outgoing and has never hesitated to coach his teammates on the court. Yet, Johnson seems to have no enemies, nor does anyone seem to begrudge him his success. When he retires with all his championship rings (he's looking for his sixth in this series), his MVP trophies (he has three so far) and his trunkful of triple doubles (he had 137 going into Game 2, including Sunday's 19 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists), universal respect might be his most Magical accomplishment.
The MJs are quite different off the court. Magic, who is single and rarely lonely, is the more "charismatic showman," as Chicago reserve Cliff Levingston, a friend of both, puts it. Johnson sponsors his own star-studded summer All-Star Game, pals around with Hollywood heavyweights and once promoted a Janet Jackson concert at The Forum.
For all the hearts he stops when he walks down the street, Jordan is quiet, even close to hermitlike at times. He has a wife and two young sons and hangs around mostly with his "homeboys" from North Carolina, Adolph Shiver, Fred Whitfield and Fred Kearns, as well as Nike representative Howard White. They play a lot of card games, with bid whist being a particular favorite. Jordan mingles with rap stars from time to time, but his retinue has no celebrities. "Only Charles Oakley," says Shiver. Wow.
Although Magic and Michael are immensely popular, Jordan's appeal is more universal. Chicago claims him, but he is too big even for that city's big shoulders.
Johnson, by contrast, is more a product of a specific place, and it is from his Los Angeles-based empire that he derives considerable business clout. For example, superagent Michael Ovitz, who is part of Magic's management team, is quite possibly the most influential person in Hollywood. Johnson treasures the brief time he spent with Donald Trump a couple of years ago. Jordan, who, as you might've heard, plays golf, treasures 18 holes with Fuzzy Zoeller. Johnson plays now, so later in his life he can work. Jordan works now, so later in his life he can play.
What they bring to the game between the lines is rudimentary yet in its own way profound: In an era when fans are looking for highly paid athletes to play like dogs, the MJs show the hearts of lions and the spirit of colts. "They look like they're having fun," says Chicago point guard John Paxson, "yet they play hard. The fan senses that and appreciates it."
That's why Chicago Stadium was filled with expectation when the teams took the court. Jordan and Johnson met during the captains' meeting at center court before tip-off and exchanged half-hugs but no smooches. "You know I don't go in for that," Jordan had said a day earlier.
Over the next 2½ hours they faced each other only when Johnson had the ball. Jordan, Chicago's biggest and strongest guard, checked Magic, while Byron Scott, who is quicker than Johnson—and more expendable should fouling Jordan become necessary—tried to stay with Jordan. Even when the Lakers had the ball, no real one-on-one battle developed. Indeed, by the second half, Chicago was double-teaming Johnson on virtually every possession.
Still, the MJ-MJ miniseries remained in the back of everyone's mind. During a first-period timeout, the Bulls' dance team was booed when it began performing to one of its standard numbers, Do You Believe in Magic? The music stopped about halfway through the song, and another one was chosen. Later in the game, P.A. announcer Ray Clay credited a Los Angeles assist to "Magic Jordan."
But, really, there was no confusion. Jordan was the one jumping and dunking and darting his way to 36 points, eight rebounds and 12 assists. Johnson was the one directing traffic, backing his way down the court and, once in a while, shooting that awkward-looking one-hander. The Bulls looked like the Bulls of old: too much Jordan and too little of everyone else. Paxson, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant had only six points apiece.
One was tempted to say that Johnson's six-point halftime total (all on free throws) was not enough, either, but that would be wrong. He calmly waited for the double team to arrive, and time after time threw passes over and around the defense to open jump shooters, usually James Worthy or Sam Perkins, both of whom finished with 22 points. It was Perkins's three-pointer with 14 seconds left, off a crosscourt bullet pass by a double-teamed Magic, that gave L.A. a 92-91 lead. Jordan then missed an 18-foot jumper despite being, as Johnson later said, "the Number One scariest person in the NBA at that time of the game." Scott made one of two free throws to end the scoring.
"I have to do what I do best, which is run the team," said Johnson afterward, "and Michael has to do what he does best—score." Both did their jobs extraordinarily well, and ultimately, the MJs just might have canceled each other out. But, boy oh boy, it was fun watching.
"I'll say this about that game," said Johnson, smiling as he climbed into the shower. "It almost lived up to the hype. And that's saying something."