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Few athletes are truly unique and change the way their sport is played with their singular abilities. Earvin “Magic” Johnson was one of them.
Reading: How did magic johnson get his nickname
how good was johnson as a basketball player? so great, perhaps, that future generations of hoop fans wish they had entered the world years earlier, just so they could have seen the magic play in person instead of only on the highlight reels.
He was what Bob Cousy was in the 1950s, what Oscar Robertson was in the 1960s, what Julius Erving was in the 1970s.
Still, Earvin Johnson was even more of a game changer, who, at 6-foot-9, was the tallest point guard in NBA history when he entered the league. His sublime talent sparked awe and admiration in even the most casual basketball fan.
Whether it was a pass behind the back to James Digno, a snap from half court at the buzzer, or a smile that lit up an arena, everyone who watched Johnson play was left with a lasting memory of what they had experienced. witnessed since he stepped on the court, people wondered: how can such a big man do so many things with the ball and with his body? it was magic.
Johnson accomplished just about everything a player could dream of during his 13-year NBA career, all of which he did with the Los Angeles Lakers. he was a member of five championship teams. He won the Most Valuable Player Award and the Finals Most Valuable Player Award three times each.
He was a 12-time All-Star and a nine-time NBA First Team member. He surpassed Robertson’s career assists record, a mark he later relinquished to John Stockton. he won a gold medal with the original dream team at the 1992 olympics in barcelona.
His complete play inspired the addition of the term “triple-double” to the basketball lexicon, though history demands that Robertson be recognized as the first man to record double figures in three statistical categories in the same game. unfortunately for the greats, no one had thought of the term triple-double in the 1960s.
Johnson did all of this by maintaining a childlike enthusiasm born of a pure love of sport and competition. beyond all the money, success and fame, johnson was just happy to play basketball.
If there was one aspect of Johnson’s game that most wowed people, it was his brilliant passing ability. He dazzled fans and stunned opponents with no-look passes off the fast break, targeting alley-oops from midcourt, spinning feeds and over-the-basket shots via triple teams. when the defenders waited for him to pass, he fired. when they expected him to shoot, he passed.
Michael Cooper, former Lakers forward, said, “There were times when he threw passes and he wasn’t sure where he was going. then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run down the court convinced he must have thrown it through somebody.”
Born August 14, 1959, Earvin Johnson Jr. grew up in lansing, mich., with nine brothers and sisters. his father worked at a general motors plant; his mother was a school janitor. young earvin spent his time singing on street corners with his friends and, of course, playing basketball. “Junior” or “June bug,” as his neighbors called him, was on the field at 7:30 a.m. many mornings.
“I trained all day,” johnson told usa weekend. “I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. then I slept with my basketball.”
Johnson was first called “magic” when he was a star at Everett High School. he nicknamed him a sportswriter who had just watched the 15-year-old prepster score 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists. (Johnson’s mother, a devout Christian, thought the nickname was profanity.) As a senior, Johnson led Everett to a 27-1 record and the state title averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.
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Johnson wanted to attend college close to home, so he enrolled at Michigan State in East Lansing. He put up impressive numbers as a freshman (17.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 7.4 apg), leading the Spartans to a 25-5 record and the Big Ten conference title. As an All-America sophomore, Johnson led his team to the national title in 1979, beating Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in perhaps the most anticipated (and most watched) NCAA Championship game ever played.
Having accomplished everything he wanted at the college level, Johnson passed up his final two seasons and entered the 1979 NBA draft. The Utah Jazz was supposed to take the top pick in the draft, but the Jazz He had traded his 1979 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers three years earlier as compensation for signing Gail Goodrich as a free agent. therefore, the lakers selected johnson with the first overall pick.
the team had just undergone some big changes: a new coach in jack mckinney, a new owner in dr. jerry buss, and seven new faces on the court. Featuring the most exciting college player in the country in a Lakers uniform, Buss expected the Forum’s normally reserved crowds to get off their hands and to their feet. “showtime” was born.
Fans who attended Johnson’s first game witnessed the kind of exuberance he would display throughout his career. After a buzzer-beating shot from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to defeat the San Diego Clippers on opening night, Johnson went wild, doling out high fives and bear hugs. at this rate, most observers thought, the boy would burn up in no time. even abdul-jabbar had to tell the rookie to calm down, because there were still 81 more games to go, and that wasn’t counting the playoffs.
the nba rookie of the year award for that season went to bird of the boston celtics. but the nba champion was los angeles. The Lakers rode to the West Division title with a 60-22 record, second best in the league. (Paul Westhead took over as coach after McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident 14 games into the season.) In 77 games, Johnson’s numbers mirrored those of his days at Michigan State (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg). He became the first rookie to start in an NBA All-Star Game since Elvin Hayes 11 years earlier.
In the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Johnson’s performance in the series-clinching Game 6 was the stuff of legend. Abdul-Jabbar was sidelined with a severe ankle sprain sustained during his 40-point effort in Game 5. Up 3-2, the Lakers could end up at the 76ers’ home court.
enter johnson, the 20-year-old rookie. Taking over Abdul-Jabbar’s position at center, Johnson hooked up and led the Lakers to victory with 42 points, 15 boards, seven assists and three steals. he even jumped for the opening tip. Johnson became the first rookie to win the finals MVP award. His impressive effort exemplified his uncanny ability to do what the Lakers needed to win.
In the Los Angeles Times, Westhead said of his amazing rookie: “We all thought he was a movie star, but we found out he wears a helmet. it’s like finding a great orthopedic surgeon who can also operate a bulldozer.”
the following year he wasn’t as nice to johnson or the lakers. In the first month, 7-foot-2 Atlanta Falcons Tom Burleson fell on Johnson’s left knee, forcing him to miss 45 games with torn cartilage. He returned in time for the Lakers’ best-of-3 playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Johnson had made just 2 of his 13 field goal attempts when he airballed as time expired in Game 3. The Lakers lost the game 89-86 and the series.
Johnson and the Lakers rebounded in 1981-82, winning their division and defeating the 76ers in another six-game NBA Finals in which Johnson repeated as MVP. the season also had its share of ugliness. From the start, Westhead wanted to restructure the offense in a way that Johnson believed would have reduced his role. In a widely reported incident, Johnson blew up in the locker room after a game in Utah. “I can’t play here anymore. I want to leave. I want them to trade me,” he was quoted as saying. The reporters waited for the signal that Johnson was joking. he didn’t come.
westhead was fired the next day and replaced by assistant coach pat riley. At Riley’s home opener, fans at the Forum booed Johnson during introductions. he in seattle he was booed every time he touched the ball. he paid the price in all-star voting and went undrafted for the only time in his career other than his injury season. it took johnson’s stellar playoff performance to silence the troublemakers.
On the court, Johnson’s game was as splendid as it was consistent. he won his second consecutive stealing title that season and for the rest of his career he would never fall below the averages of 17.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 10.5 assists.
The two years that followed the Westhead flap were great for Johnson individually, but tough for the Angels. Johnson won the first two of his four league assist titles and continued to improve his already brilliant all-around game. In the 1982-83 NBA Finals against rival Philadelphia, however, Lakers Norm Nixon, Worthy, and Bob Mcadoo were hampered by injury. the 76ers swept the series.
by the 1984 final, nixon was gone, abdul-jabbar was in his late 40s, and johnson had signed a record-breaking 25-year, $25 million contract. The grueling seven-game series against Boston marked a low point in Johnson’s career. his blunders at the end of games 2, 4 and 7 contributed to the loss of the lakers.
with johnson improving his outside shooting and setting assist records, the lakers won three nba titles in the next four years. The first of this series came in the 1985 Finals victory over their nemesis, the Celtics. After being destroyed in Game 1 of the series, 148-114, dubbed the “Memorial Day Massacre” since the game was played on that holiday, the Lakers would rally to win the series in six games. The decisive victory came on the outfield floor 111-100 and marked the first time the Lakers had defeated the Celtics in a Finals after eight previous defeats dating back to when the Lakers were playing in Minneapolis.
during the 1986-87 season, with abdul-jabbar sidelined briefly with an eye infection, johnson did something most professional scouts had said he couldn’t do: score. He scored 38 points against Houston and then his career-high 46 points in the next game against the Sacramento Kings. his season average of 23.9 was the highest of his career.
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That season, Johnson was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. it had taken eight years, in which time the bird had garnered three mvp awards. Johnson had wanted it desperately. Before the winner was announced, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, “Right now, he’s 3 and I’m 0. That bothers me a little bit.” (He would eventually tie Bird in the MVP count, claiming the award again in 1989 and 1990.)
Johnson won his third Finals MVP Award in 1987, following a six-game victory over Boston. It was also the year Johnson took Abdul-Jabbar’s place as team leader. At h-o-r-s-e games during practice, the 40-year-old center taught his protégé how to shoot a sky-hook. Johnson quickly mastered his own version of the shot, which he used to make the game-winning basket in a Game 4 win in the outfield, 107-106. That win propelled the Lakers to a second Finals victory over the Celtics in three years.
in 1988, the lakers bested the detroit pistons in a bitter seven-game series to become the first team since the 1968-69 celtics to repeat as champions. The next two seasons, Johnson averaged more than 20 points and led the Lakers to two more division titles. In 1988-89, Abdul-Jabbar’s final season, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury in the NBA Finals and the Lakers were swept by an entire team of Pistons. The following year, the Angels suffered their earliest playoff exit in nine years, losing to the Phoenix Suns in the conference semifinals.
Johnson in the 1990-91 season helped the Lakers to a 58-24 record. After defeating a Clyde Drexler-led Portland Pioneers team that won the Pacific Division in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers made another trip to the NBA Finals. The Lakers lost to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in five games, but it was the ninth time Johnson had reached the Finals in his 12 seasons.
Before the 1991-1992 season, Johnson shocked the world by announcing that he had tested positive for the hiv virus and was retiring from the nba. However, he made a triumphant appearance in that season’s All-Star Game, won the game’s Most Valuable Player Award, and led the West to a 153-113 victory. he also started a campaign to promote AIDS awareness, an effort for which he received the j league. walter kennedy citizenship award.
johnson went on to play for the usa. 1992. Olympic dream team, writing a book on safe sex, managing several businesses he had started as a player, working for NBC as a television commentator, and exploring the possibility of buying an NBA franchise. With 16 games remaining in the 1993-94 season, he replaced Randy Pfund as the Lakers’ head coach.
The team was fighting for a playoff spot when Johnson took over, and Los Angeles immediately won five straight. But after the club lost five of their next six starts, Johnson announced that he would not return as manager the following season.
“I want to go home,” he told the Associated Press. “It has never been my dream to train. I want to be an owner, to be a businessman. you have to chase your dreams.” Johnson got his wish in June 1994, when he bought out a share of the Lakers and became a joint owner.
in 1995, johnson became involved in another business venture, opening a chain of movie theaters in minority neighborhoods in the los angeles area, a venture he later took to other cities. He also continued to entertain fans around the world as he took his impressive basketball team (consisting of former NBA and college players) to Asia and Australia.
but he wasn’t done with the nba. After missing four and a half seasons, he returned late in the 1995-96 season, playing the last 32 regular-season games for the Lakers. by then he had grown to 255 pounds and made both his play at power forward and guard. After the Lakers were eliminated by Houston in the first round of the 1996 playoffs, Johnson retired once more.
In his 13 NBA seasons, Johnson racked up 17,707 points (19.5 ppg), 6,559 rebounds (7.2 ppg), and 10,141 assists (11.2 ppg), along with 1,724 steals , which places him in ninth place on the all-time list. he also has the highest score in most all-star game assists (127) and three-pointers (10).
In 1996-1997, Johnson was selected to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 2002, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Was he the best player of his time? another all-time great thinks so.
“magic is far above all others,” larry bird once observed in the chicago sun-times. “I’ve never seen [anyone] as good as him.”
in early february 2014, johnson participated in the wnba’s purchase of the los angeles sparks with the los angeles dodgers controlling owner mark r. walter and other local investors. The team won the championship in 2016, lost in the WNBA Finals in 2017, and has been in the playoffs every season since Johnson took over the role of him with the Sparks.
Feb. On January 21, 2017, the Lakers hired Johnson as the team’s president of basketball operations. Before the final game of the Los Angeles Lakers 2018-19 season, Magic Johnson shocked the team and the NBA world at large by resigning from his role. While he no longer fills that role for the Lakers, Johnson has many prosperous business interests along with ownership stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles FC.
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