Magic Johnson did no less than force everyone who watched basketball to examine the preconceptions about what constituted the prototypical NBA player.
Six-foot-nine-inch giants are not supposed to be able to handle the ball well enough to play guard. But the 6'9" Johnson handled it as well as anyone who ever lived. No player is supposed to have talents varied enough to enable him to play every position in the NBA. But Johnson, primarily a point guard during his 12-year career, dominated the decisive game of the 1980 Finals from the center position and from time to time over the last few seasons played All-Star-caliber post-up small forward and power forward.
Shooters are supposed to be born, not made. But Johnson, a nonshooter with an ugly-looking release as a collegian at Michigan State, gradually turned himself into a feared outside threat, not to mention one of the best free throw shooters in the league. And in the grind of an 82-game schedule and an enervating, pressure-packed postseason, no one is supposed to have both the playing skills and the interpersonal skills necessary to hold the reins of leadership year after year. But Johnson became the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers when he and his wide smile first walked through the doors of The Forum in 1979, and he was the team's unqualified leader when he walked away from the game, still smiling, last Thursday afternoon.
That aspect of Johnson's career—his leadership—will perhaps be his greatest legacy as a player, and it goes well beyond mere popularity. The most successful NBA teams are those with a personality, an identity, and the Lakers have been consistent winners since 1979 largely because they knew who they were: They were Magic's team, pure and simple. Late in a game, there was no question about who would direct traffic and determine the best final shot, as there sometimes was on, say, the Boston Celtics, whose leader, Larry Bird, was not their primary ball handler. Johnson dictated when the Lakers ran and when they walked, when they got it inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and when they pitched it back out for a Byron Scott jumper. He knew where James Worthy liked the ball on the break and when Vlade Divac had to be whacked on the backside and told to rebound.
November 18, 1991
In fact there were times in recent years when Magic quite literally talked his team through its paces during games, giving the Lakers, in effect, the NBA's only voice-operated offense. O.K., James, give it back, cut through now, rub off A.C., O.K., post up.... It was quite audible even to the reporters on press row, not to mention the defense, but Magic's theory was that if you did something right, it didn't matter who knew it was coming.
His leadership in the locker room was equally important. After Game 2 of the 1987 NBA Finals, in which the Lakers demolished the Celtics 141-122 to take a 2-0 series lead, veteran Laker guard Michael Cooper, a great talker, was rambling on to reporters long after the game. That was customarily Magic's role too, and he performed it with great aplomb. But on this night Magic, who dressed next to Cooper, was concerned that his team would be lulled into complacency by two easy victories.
"O.K., Coop, wrap it up," Magic whispered to Cooper.
But the questions kept coming, and Cooper kept talking. Magic tapped him on the shoulder. "Coop!" he said. "I said that's it. Now!"
Cooper smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said to the reporters, "Well, you heard him."
For a dozen years Magic had the Lakers under his thumb. And they loved being there.
What set Magic apart on the court? His height, of course, an advantage at the guard position that cannot be overstated. In a league where the best teams have come to rely more and more on sophisticated defenses, the Lakers were virtually untrappable because Magic was able to throw the ball over defenders. The simple entry pass to the post was no trouble for him, as it is for so many NBA guards who are susceptible to the thievery of quick-handed defenders like the Milwaukee Bucks' Alvin Robertson and the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan.
This is not to say that Magic dominated his position for 12 years simply because he was taller than everyone else. He also threw the ball under defenses about as well as anyone who ever played the game. How many times did you see Magic grab a defensive rebound, take a few dribbles upcourt—"powering out," as Pat Riley called it when he coached the Lakers—and throw an indescribable 40-foot bullet of a bounce pass that met Worthy or Scott in full stride, just as they cut toward the basket? That ability to calculate the convergence of a bouncing ball with a sprinting player is a gift, and Magic is one of the few players who ever had it.
In addition to his height, Magic's strength and pure bulk (he weighed at least 220 pounds for most of his career) were his most important physical attributes. Though he will be forever associated with the transition game, he was neither particularly fast—he moved with a kind of lumbering grace—nor as quick as many others at his position. What he was able to do was get where he wanted to go, not more quickly but much more efficiently than anyone else. On the break his dribbling skills took him around defenders who challenged him early, and his spin move remained unequaled even in 1991. And once he got into the lane, it was all over: He simply bulled his way to the basket.
In the half-court game Magic's bulk was a formidable factor, and at times, as he maneuvered smaller and slighter backcourt opponents like the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson and the Utah Jazz's John Stockton closer and closer to the basket, he looked like a father toying with his sons out in the driveway.
Riley, who coached Magic for nine years, always thought Johnson's nickname was unfortunate in some respects, suggesting as it did a smoke-and-mirrors quality that diverted attention from the fundamental soundness of Johnson's game. (Riley always called Johnson by either his given name, Earvin, or Buck, another nickname.) There is something to that, for Magic was never quite as fancy or tricky as that moniker suggests. Some two decades before Johnson came into the league, Bob Cousy put the ball between his legs and around his back much more frequently than Magic would.
What defined the Lakers' Showtime fast-break style at its zenith was the way Magic sold his moves from the middle of the floor. Magic surely has the most expressive face in the history of sports. As he steamed toward the basket, his eyes would widen and his mouth would round into an O as he looked off his defender, selling the pass to, say, Scott on the right side and then suddenly zipping it over his shoulder to Worthy on the left. The fast break is about making decisions in the wink of an eye, and Magic, like vintage Cousy, made excellent ones while earning thousands of style points in the process.
Ultimately, the unique thing about Johnson as a player is that he was able to be at the cutting edge while still being somewhat old-fashioned. Until he slowed down a bit in recent seasons, he was the consummate playground player—the high dribble, the spin moves, the outside shot that looked like an afterthought. But even in his most electrifying moments he was, in contrast to Jordan, never a particularly acrobatic player or a great leaper, especially as his knees grew more tender. Like Bird, that other noted relic, he never had a classic jump shot, relying instead on an anachronistic one-hand set. And as the years rolled on, his signature shot became the hook, that hoary creation that he, like players of old, took—and made—with either hand. In deference to Abdul-Jabbar, he called it "the junior, junior skyhook." Magic was never just like Jordan, never just like Bird. He was somewhere in between, and thus attracted fans from both camps.
Like all superstars, Magic got favorable treatment from referees. There were hundreds of times when he could have been called for charging on the fast break, when he leaned in and simply overpowered a defender with that big body. And there were thousands of other occasions when he could have been whistled for traveling, when he took an extra step or two on his way to the basket. But the NBA has become a refuge for stylists, a place where the great players are allowed to be great. And few in the history of the game have been greater than Johnson.
Now what will happen? Magic's announcement devastated the Lakers, who just 18 hours after learning the news of his having tested HIV-positive, boarded a plane for the saddest road trip in their history. Predictably, they played like zombies in losing 113-85 to the Phoenix Suns last Friday night.
"I'd look over to his spot and think, 'Wait, he's not there," said Scott after that defeat. "I had to keep asking myself, 'What's the play again?' I couldn't find a way to stay with it."
At week's end neither Dr. Jerry Buss, with whom Magic shared a relationship as close as that between any owner and player in sports, nor general manager Jerry West had recovered from the shock. They must deal not only with their personal grief but also with the practical problem of replacing Johnson. Ponder that for a moment. "How do you replace him?" asks West. "You almost feel hopeless." The Lakers may well fall to being a 45-win team without their quarterback, and they will tumble dramatically on the NBA's glitz-and-glamour scale.
Magic's departure also has obvious implications for the U.S. Olympic team, which is now without a point guard and a captain, jobs that had both been locked up by Johnson. Although he still holds out hope of playing, it is not considered very likely by NBA officials, who have lost perhaps their most enduring hero.
Indeed, as San Antonio Spur veteran forward Terry Cummings says, "The Lakers will never be the same team, and the NBA will never be the same league."