<h3>Earvin “Magic” Johnson Is The Greatest Laker Ever. An Intelligent Argument Can Be Made That He Was Actually Better Than Michael Jordan. But That Merely Scratches The Surface Of Who He Is And What He Means.</h3>
Look up the word “Magic” in the dictionary and you’ll find a definition similar to this – “The art of supposedly invoking supernatural powers to influence events.”
When a local sportswriter for the Lansing State Journal anointed Earvin Johnson with the moniker after he scored 36 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and dished out 16 assists during a game as a 15-year-old sophomore at Everett High School, it was no mere stroke of marketing and public relations genius.
Rare is the man, throughout life’s various stages, who could live up to the majesty of that exalted nickname. But throughout his journey, from high school to Michigan State and from the Los Angeles Lakers to the corporate boardroom, Johnson continues to dazzle us, living and attacking each challenge with the same ferocious exhilaration that he exhibited while running the Showtime fast break in the 1980’s.
We should all be aware of the shot of adrenaline he injected into the NBA after leading Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA title. Magic was the first underclassmen ever to be drafted with the NBA’s number one pick. Prior to his arrival, the league was viewed, in white picket fence communities and within the corridors of corporate America, as being too black, saddled with a reputation for its players being drug addicted and indifferent.
Magic, along with Julius Erving, Larry Bird and the greatest commissioner in the history of pro sports, David Stern, spearheaded the transition of the NBA from being an afterthought in the national sporting consciousness, as evidenced by Finals games being televised on late-night tape-delay in the early to mid ‘80s, to today’s global, financial and entertainment powerhouse.
In addition to being one of the most unique, revolutionary talents as a 6-foot-9 point guard who could also play every position, it cannot be overstated that Magic Johnson and Dr. J transcended the ignorant stereotype of color, not only with their breathtaking repertoire, but also because of their regal bearing.
The brilliance embedded in Johnson’s game went much deeper than his mesmerizing passing ability, infectious enthusiasm and embarrassment of overall skills. The Laker fast break and championship pedigree meshed perfectly with Magic’s personality, but buried beneath the veneer of his mega-watt smile was a famished hunger and insatiable desire that fed his addiction to victory.
His unvanquished will and unwavering confidence permeated a team, a frame of mind that soaked its way into the pores of even the last bench warmers during practice. Not only did he elevate his teammates to levels they couldn’t have ascended without him, but he affected the crowd in the arena and those watching on television similarly, with the rush of endorphins repeatedly making those who witnessed his brilliance believe that they too could accomplish something magical in their own lives.
If you were fortunate enough, as I was, to watch him play in college and on through the entirety of his pro career, you were keenly aware that the outcome of his efforts were extremely important to him, his desire to win championships overshadowed any wealth or celebrity status that he accumulated as a result.
During a twelve-year span, Magic’s teams played in the NBA Finals a mind-boggling nine times. If you factor in his NCAA title, he played in a deciding championship game ten times in an astounding thirteen years! Now put that in your pipe and smoke on it for a few minutes.
The stories from his childhood, when he was known by his family nicknames of “Junior” and “June Bug”, often tell of him imitating the ball-handling wizardry of his idols Marques Haynes and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe while dribbling down the streets of Lansing, Michigan.
“I practiced all day,” he once told USA Today. “I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball.”
Those early stories rarely mentioned the work ethic of his mother Christine, who raised a brother and a sister after her own mother passed away when she was a teenager, in addition to Magic and his seven brothers and sisters when she later married. They rarely mentioned how after coming home from working her full time job as a school custodian, she’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning cleaning the house, doing laundry, ironing clothes and preparing the following day’s meals for her large family.
Some of those stories mentioned Magic’s father, Earvin Sr., and the fact that he never missed a day of work as a nightshift welder in a General Motors plant. But many of them failed to mention that when his shift ended, he’d hustle over to a nearby car dealership at 2 a.m. to work as part of a cleaning crew and after quick run home to nap for a few hours, he’d collect garbage, sometimes with young Magic working alongside him, from late morning to mid afternoon.
As a boy, young Earvin was often teased by the neighborhood kids who called him “Garbage Man”, but the work ethic and love he absorbed from his parents and family fueled his radiant smile, regardless of the hurtful words others hurled at him.
Most didn’t know that from an early age, he was thankful for every breathing moment and was determined to seize each and every one with a rare passion, after being pulled, unconscious, out of a swimming pool at the age of nine, nearly drowned to death before the onset of adolescence.
Most didn’t know that, since the age of 16, he played with two hearts, two spirits and two indomitable wills to succeed after his best friend, Reggie Chastine, died in a car accident.
As the brilliant Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith wrote in 1995, “Mutt and Jeff, people had called them back in Lansing. Reggie was a year older than Magic, a little guy with a big afro, toughest little s.o.b. on the courts of Lansing. He was the one who saw Earvin’s greatness before Earvin did, who wouldn’t permit Earvin to back away, not an inch, from anyone or anything. ‘I doubted myself back then,’ said Earvin. ‘He was who I should have been.’ Earvin should have been in Reggie’s car that night, because he always was. But for some reason he had begged off, and when the news came by telephone, Earvin screamed ‘No, no, no!’ and ran out the door of his house, ran blindly for hours, tears streaming down his cheeks.’
Magic and Reggie would hold the court all day long at St. Joe’s Park in Lansing, often arriving at sunrise to get the day started with one-on-one games filled with trash talk and laughter.
Despite the championships, statistical excellence, All-Star games and MVP’s, it’s still difficult to fully quantify Magic’s importance to our beloved sport.
Even with all of the tales that are now commonly known, like when the great Kareem Abdul Jabbar suffered a severely sprained ankle in Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals after scoring 40 points against the 76’ers, when the Lakers were heading to Philly for the final two games without their best player, and how Magic sauntered onto the team plane and announced, “Never fear, EJ’s here.”
And in case his point wasn’t fully understood, he lowered himself into the seat normally reserved for Kareem, and then went into The Spectrum and played center, guard and forward in the decisive game 6. Magic delivered one of the most iconic moments in league history after scoring 42 points, snagging 15 boards, handing out 7 assists and swiping three steals in a 16-point smack down of a 59-win Philly team that featured the great Julius Erving along with Darryl Dawkins, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Doug Collins, earning series MVP honors. AND HE DID THIS AS A 20-YEAR-OLD ROOKIE!
The Lakers’ rivalry with Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the early to mid-‘80s brought the casual fan into the NBA equation, a monumental and overlooked element in the paradigm shift from fringe sport to mainstream acceptance. These were folks who may not have understood the nuance of the pick-and-roll, hard screens and box-outs, but they sure could appreciate Magic’s quarterbacking brilliance as he zipped those no-look, behind the back and implausible bounce passes at angles that only he could see to the likes of James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem and Byron Scott, among others.
And despite the fact that most people think of Magic and Bird as equals, they weren’t. They both exhibited an all-around excellence, unselfishness and intuitive brilliance that elevated their teams in ways that the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards can only dream of.
But Magic won five rings, was the best leader in the history of pro sports and led the Lakers to the first repeat title since the 1969 Celtics. He holds the Finals record with most assists in a game with 21 and no player ever dished out more assists in playoff history than he did.
He was built like a power forward and threw bulls-eye alley oops from half-court, was equally unstoppable on a three-on-one fast break or posting up on the block. He’s the all-time leader in assist average per game with 11.2, and introduced the term “Triple-Double” into the national basketball dialogue, putting a frame on what the great Oscar Robertson accomplished in his illustrious era of the 1960’s.
At 6-foot-9, Magic was as tall as the remarkable Bill Russell, but his ability to analyze, improvise, score, rebound and pass abolished the antiquated, stereotypical notions of size and position. His winning percentage is on par with Russell and his total rebounding and assist numbers overshadow The Big O’s.
For people whose frame of reference begins in the 1990’s with Michael Jordan, they might have the misguided notion that Kobe Bryant is the greatest Laker ever. As magnificent and gifted as Kobe is, and despite his stellar accomplishments, it’s not even debatable because Magic not only elevated the game, he changed it.
In the process, he had rivalries with every premier talent in the ‘80s, the best decade ever in the history of pro ball – from KJ to Olajuwon, The Iceman, Drexler, The Mailman, The Admiral, etc. He competed in the Finals against Bird’s great Celtics teams, Dr. J’s incredible 76’ers, Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boy Pistons crew and defeated them all. And if the ’91 Lakers didn’t limp through the Finals against the Bulls with significant injuries to offensive weapons Byron Scott and James Worthy, it might be Magic sporting those six rings instead of Jordan.
While Kobe and other greats embraced and bathed in the admiration and love that fans so willingly gave them, Magic is that one dude who actually returned it, the one cat that had the ability to make others feel good about being themselves. That’s something that can’t be practiced or feigned, his rare, innate and unique gift.
When he co-captained the greatest team ever, the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, he was far and above the team’s most popular player among international audiences, with adoring fans from every country chanting Ma-JEEK, Ma-JEEK!, everywhere he turned. Only two players ever played in more NBA Finals, the Celtics’ Bill Russell, with 12, and Sam Jones with 11.
When his HIV diagnosis hit the airwaves on November 7th, 1991, while everyone was crying and prematurely writing his eulogy, Magic embarked on something that implausibly dwarfed his basketball accomplishments. He taught the world about HIV and AIDS, educating us to the fact that it wasn’t a dreaded death sentence dispensed to homosexuals and drug users.
On top of that, the sweetness of his aura and positive outlook never faded. He never wallowed in self-pity. He woke up every morning at the crack of dawn, worked out and sought new outlets for his visionary goals. He established businesses, invested in downtrodden communities and re-arranged the accepted business models as those investments matured into a net worth that dwarfed anything he’d earned as an athlete. He became a minority owner of two legendary franchises, the Lakers and now Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers.
He saw the fight against HIV and retirement from the game as another challenge, another deciding game with the championship on the line. And when he saw the sadness on the faces of his friends and family after his HIV announcement, he simply flashed that wondrous smile that lit up 20,000 seat arenas and simply said, “Don’t worry about me, I got this!”
And through the years, since that sobering news conference in 1991, we saw that it wasn’t self-deception, that he was simply living like he played. He was living to win!
On the last day of filming, with the labor negotiations settled, Magic bopped into the tent as a collection of the world’s greatest players looked up and paused.
“Rodman, on the NBA all-defensive team five times, covered Magic,” wrote Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated. “Magic spooned it out that night – all the no-look passes and junior skyhooks and post-up power moves; the sorcerer come back to life with a blacksmith’s body. When Jordan had watched enough, he playfully motioned Rodman aside and elected himself to cover Magic. ‘MJ,’ said Magic, ‘I’m not the regular guy I used to be. I’m six-nine, two hundred fifty pounds. Why don’t you cover one of the guards and send a big man over to me.”
“Grinning, Michael regarded Earvin for a moment and then said, ‘Guess you’re right,’” continued Smith. “And then Earvin, having had a little more fun, having won again, grabbed his sweats to head home, shining like a Sunday morning and shrugging it off as the players kept asking, ‘Damn, why aren’t you still playing?’”
What they didn’t realize back then, and what some still don’t realize today, is that whether it’s in the ESPN studios, in the Dodger’s offices, in the CEO suite of Magic Johnson Enterprises, in the field of philanthropy, behind the scenes with the NBA or at home with his family, Magic never stopped playing.
He might no longer be wearing the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers, but he never stopped competing, winning and gunning for championships.
Today, Magic Johnson is running the fast break of life. And I’ll bet my bottom food stamp that, for those paying attention, he’s making others want to do the exact same thing.