Everybody has a favorite basketball player – the giant that made them fall in love with the game. For many Lakers fans, especially those who attended in the 1980s, Magic Johnson defines the NBA. While LA has hosted many legends over the years, most are overshadowed by the achievements of the Magic Man.
The astonishing rookie year of Magic Johnson
Earvin Johnson earned the nickname “Magic” at the tender age of 15. A local sports journalist watched Johnson dominate the court while representing Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan. Johnson scored 36 points that game, while also picking up 16 rebounds and the same number of assists.
These performances caught the eye of the Lakers, who recruited Johnson for his rookie year in the 1979 draft. The Lakers were hardly struggling before his arrival, with the towering center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar earning countless MVP awards. Johnson was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle to get the Lakers over the line as champions, though. So it proved to be.
Magic Johnson had arguably the most spectacular rookie year of any NBA athlete in the sport’s history. Initially, Johnson baffled his teammates as much as his opponents. A master of the “no-look pass”, nobody knew what Magic Johnson would do next – including his fellow Lakers. Over time, though, Johnson began deploying the wide menagerie of skills in his repertoire. The Lakers would win 60 games on their run to the title that season.
It was the sixth game of the 1980 finals that saw Magic Johnson announce his presence to the world. Going into the game, LA held a 3-2 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers. Unfortunately, the coveted Abdul-Jabbar was out injured. Many expected this to impact LA’s chances of victory and for Philadelphia to tie the series. Johnson stepped in as center, scoring 42 points – alongside 15 rebounds and 7 assists – to secure the championship.
Is Magic Johnson the greatest living Laker?
Let’s be clear – the word ‘living’ is a sizable caveat in this argument. Had we not lost the late, great Kobe Bryant to tragedy in 2020, the record-shattering shooting guard would get the vote of many. Alas, that’s not the conversation we’re having.
Magic Johnson was at the forefront of the so-called “Showtime” era in Laker’s history. Built around an exciting, fast-paced game plan, the Lakers racked up five championships between Johnson’s arrival and his abrupt retirement in 1991. This era also saw a fabled rivalry with the Boston Celtics – with Johnson enduring a heated personal enmity with Larry Bird.
If anything stains Johnson’s legacy in LA, it was a fallout with title-winning coach Paul Westhead in 1981. Shortly after he signed the most lucrative contract in NBA history ($25 million for 25 years – that’s over $70 million in today’s money), Johnson publicly criticized Westhead’s coaching techniques and tactics and demanded a trade. His wish was not granted, but Westhead was fired – much to the disgust of Lakers fans and players alike. Johnson was roundly criticized and booed at every game, home and away.
As any sports fan knows, however, performing on the court can excuse any poor behavior. Johnson continued to struggle earlier in the 1980s, suffering a serious knee injury that sidelined him for months. Johnson’s form picked up, and thanks in no small part to those aforementioned battles with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, became a Lakers icon, earning three MVP awards across the decade.
The fall and rise of Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers
Johnson retired from professional basketball in 1991 after testing positive for HIV. This was around the time that Michael Jordan-inspired Chicago Bulls rose to prominence – the Bulls obliterated the Lakers 4-1 in the 1991 finals – depriving NBA fans of another potentially storied rivalry. Johnson’s love story with the Lakers was not over, though.
He returned as a coach in 1994. Johnson enjoyed a successful start to his coaching career in the 1994-95 season, winning five of their first six matches. Alas, a 10-game winless run followed, prompting Johnson to announce that he would step down as coach at the end of the season.
In the 1995-96 season, Johnson returned to the Lakers roster as a player. Now aged 36, Johnson defied his health concerns to forge a new career as a power forward. The Lakers won 22 of the games Johnson played in his second spell, though he once again fell out with his coach. This time it was Del Harris on the receiving end of Johnson’s criticisms, with Johnson claiming that offensive tactics were muddled and confused.
Magic Johnson contemplated another season in 1996-97 but opted for permanent retirement. Johnson was satisfied with his decision, explaining that “I am going out on my terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992.” Aside from a couple of brief stints in Scandinavia in the late 1990s, Magic Johnson was never seen on a basketball court again. His status as a Lakers legend was firmly cemented, though – especially when he returned once again in 2017 as president of basketball operations.
Over his two stints as a Laker, Magic Johnson played 906 regular games. He was voted the NBA’s MVP three times, played in 12 all-star matches, and averaged 19.5 points per game, along with a median of 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists. As the old saying goes, stats don’t lie.
If Magic Johnson is not the greatest living Laker, who is?
There are three main rivals to Magic Johnson’s claim to the title of greatest living Laker. Jerry West, Shaquille O’Neal, and the aforementioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Jerry West should need no introduction. A champion with the Lakers in 1972, before enjoying another three years as a coach between 1976 and 1979, it’s the silhouette of West that adorns the NBA logo. Shaq, meanwhile, spent eight years in LA, earning three titles and the same number of MVP awards. Stints with five other teams, however – especially the Celtics – dilute his Lakers legacy ever so slightly.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is arguably Johnson’s biggest rival for the moniker of greatest living Laker. After joining the Lakers from the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar won five titles and is the third-highest points scorer in the history of the franchise. He also brought a lot more to the team than simply scoring, and – alongside Johnson – came to define the Showtime era. Regardless of what little Joey’s dad said in Airplane, Abdul-Jabbar did run downcourt and work hard on defense!
“Greatest” is a subjective term and one that nobody will ever reach a unanimous verdict on. There is plenty to support Magic Johnson’s claim to this title, though. Anybody fortunate enough to watch Johnson dominating the NBA in his pomp will certainly state a compelling case. Overall, Magic Johnson is a hall of famer for a reason. We’re unlikely to see his kind again.