The NBA Finals are upon us and once again fans are being treated to some spectacular performances by legends in the making. While watching Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki in this year’s championship series, it is almost impossible not to think of stars that have dominated past Finals series.
There have been many All-Stars and MVP-caliber players in NBA history, but those that have won multiple championships while posting spectacular numbers are usually considered the greatest.
One such player that everyone should include near the top of the NBA's legends is Magic Johnson. Only 13 players have won more championships than his five and only three players (Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) have made more Finals appearances than Johnson. In other words, Johnson became a proven winner who was constantly playing on the game’s grandest stage.
This article serves as a tribute to Johnson and lists many of the reasons that most analysts consider him to be the greatest point guard in the league’s history.
For those who were fortunate enough to see Magic play in person, this should bring back some fond memories. For the rest that are too young to have witnessed Magic playing, I hope you enjoy this tribute piece and hopefully learn a few things along the way.
Slide Video: 1979 NCAA Basketball Championship Game Highlights
Before he was known as “Magic,” Earvin Johnson grew up in Lansing, Michigan with a basketball in his hands nearly all day, every day. It wasn’t until he posted a triple-double in a high school game (36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists) that a local sports writer named Fred Stabley Jr. called him "Magic."
The most amazing part is that Earvin was only 15 when this occurred.
As a senior in high school, Johnson led his school with averages of 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per game en route to winning the state championship game.
He then decided to attend Michigan State University and after narrowly leading the Spartans into the Final Four in his first season, Magic would redeem himself in his sophomore campaign.
In the most-watched college basketball game in history, Magic led Michigan State over Indiana State 75-64 to win the NCAA championship. While this put Magic up against Indiana State’s star player Larry Bird, Johnson not only came out ahead with the win, but also outscored all other players with 24 points.
This was not the first time Magic would come out ahead of Bird, but this was the beginning of their famed rivalry.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson’s First NBA Game
NBA Fans first witnessed the exciting style of play of Magic Johnson during his first game on October 12, 1979 against the San Diego Clippers.
During the game, Johnson showed his all-around brilliance with his scoring, passing and ball-handling skills. However, the game may best be remembered for his bear hug of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after Kareem hit a game-winning skyhook shot. Kareem told Magic afterwards to calm down as there were still 81 more games left in the season.
Slide Video: Game 6 of the 1980 Finals
After Magic’s first NBA game, he would go on to have an excellent rookie season. He averaged 18.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 7.3 APG and 2.4 SPG while shooting 53 percent. Magic was selected to the NBA All-Rookie first team and was named a starter for the 1980 All-Star Game, becoming the first rookie to start in that game since Elvin Hayes. He accomplished all this while having to share ball-distributing duties on the team with Norm Nixon.
While his rival Larry Bird would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award, Magic would one-up Bird by winning the NBA championship that season.
Yet, it was how Johnson won his first title that defined his legendary career. Facing the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers were led by season MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the first five games with him averaging 33 points per game. After spraining his ankle in Game 5 with the Lakers up 3-2, Kareem would miss the rest of the series.
After losing Game 5 and forced to play in Philadelphia, Magic Johnson started at center in place of Kareem. He would go on to play all five positions on the court during the game and tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals while leading L.A. to victory. According to many NBA analysts, this was the most impressive single game in NBA Finals history.
Not only did this performance win him the NBA Finals MVP award, but he remains the youngest player (at age 20) and the only rookie to win this award in league history. And once again, he came out ahead of Larry Bird.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson’s Top 10 Playoff Performances
Magic Johnson was truly one of the NBA’s greatest winners as he won NBA championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. Had it not been for injuries, he might have won three more rings.
For instance, in 1981 Magic Johnson tore cartilage in his left knee that would cause him to miss most of the season. Although he suited up for L.A. in the playoffs, his game was clearly a bit rusty as the Houston Rockets ousted the Lakers in three games.
Then in 1983, the Lakers sustained injuries to James Worthy, Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo. Finally, the Lakers were without the team’s starting backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott in the 1989 Finals when both succumbed to hamstring injuries, after posting a perfect 11-0 record in the playoffs up to that point.
While Johnson could have possibly won eight rings, his five were certainly impressive.
Slide Video: Magic’s “Baby Hook” Shot in the 1987 Finals
During the championship runs, Magic had his share of epic moments. One of the most defining plays of his career came at the end of Game 4 of the 1987 Finals. Down by one point against the Boston Celtics and playing in Boston, Magic Johnson scored over Hall of Famers Robert Parish and Kevin McHale on a running hook shot.
According to the NBA marketing team, Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals is the greatest NBA Finals moment. However, I would argue that this shot was more impressive. While both shots would lead their respective teams to the championship, Michael Jordan got away with an offensive foul with his push-off of Byron Russell. Jordan also had a wide-open shot rather than having to hoist a hook shot (a more difficult shot by nature) over two seven-footers.
If just one shot could sum up the career of Magic Johnson, this hook shot would be it. In just five seconds, the clutch play defines winning and talent.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson’s Top 10 Buzzer-Beaters
Like every NBA player, Magic Johnson had some growing pains in the NBA. Yet, despite some poor performances in the 1981 and 1984 Finals, Johnson would redeem himself with all of the clutch performances to follow.
While Magic may have been one of the best ever at making teammates around him better, he also knew how to score. It became a habit of his to hit difficult shots not just in the clutch, but to beat the buzzer as well.
You’ll definitely want to check out this slide video.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson’s Top 10 Assists
One of the reasons Magic Johnson became so popular around the league was the style of play that he brought to the court. By running the “Showtime” offense, Magic Johnson led a fast-paced Lakers attack that often started with the 6'9" guard rebounding the ball and starting the break.
Whether it was running the fast break or half-court sets, Magic was a master at running plays to perfection. His tall frame allowed him to see over his defenders and tell when teammates became open. Johnson even found players with the ball before his opponents realized they were open, giving the impression that he had eyes in back of his head.
He mastered the no-look pass so well that he even caught teammates off guard some times. Teammate Michael Cooper once said, “There have been times when [Magic] has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going. Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody.”
Throughout his career, Magic Johnson led the league in assists four times and probably would have done so three other times if not for an injury during his sophomore year and having to share point guard duties early on with Norm Nixon.
Nevertheless, he still has the highest assist average of all time with 11.2 per game and ranks fourth in career assists with 10,141. He also holds the record for most assists in a playoff game (24), in a Finals game (21) and in playoffs history (2,346).
If not for his early retirement in 1991 due to him testing positive for the HIV, Magic’s career assist tally during the regular season would likely rival John Stockton’s for first place all time.
Slide Video: 1992 All-Star Game MVP Performance
After Johnson’s stunning announcement on November 7, 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, the basketball world was in a state of shock. Back in the early 1990s, announcing that one had HIV was basically a death sentence.
With the announcement came Magic’s decision to retire immediately from the NBA, despite still being at the peak of his playing abilities.
Although he played few games that season, Johnson was selected to play at the All-Star Game in Orlando. To say the least, he did not disappoint the fans who came out to see him play as he led the West to a 153-113 win with an impressive performance of 25 points, five rebounds and nine assists. Johnson’s spectacular play also earned him an All-Star MVP award.
Slide Video: 1992 Olympics Magic Johnson Passes to Michael Jordan for the Dunk
Magic Johnson had the opportunity to represent the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona along with teammates Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and Scottie Pippen among others. The team routed the competition, winning every game by an average of 44 points. Given the level of talent on that roster, the team was dubbed "The Dream Team" and is widely believed to be the best collection of basketball talent ever assembled.
Because of knee problems, Magic Johnson played sparingly for the team. However, when he stepped onto the court, he still found ways to “make a little magic” happen for his team, such as this amazing pass to Scottie Pippen.
At this point of his career, his legend was so great that opponents were more concerned with getting his autograph than trying to stop him on the court. Magic was happy to oblige of course, but only after handing them a loss.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson’s Comeback in 1996
After a few seasons out of the league and a brief coaching stint with the Lakers, Johnson decided to return to the court so he could play a few last games before retiring on his own terms.
Now weighing about 250 pounds, Johnson played the role of point forward at the 4 position on the court. While being 36 years old, Magic went on to average 14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game in the last 32 contests of the season. Although his Lakers would lose to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, the NBA and its fans were once again reminded of the excitement that Magic brought to the game.
Slide Video: Magic Johnson Career Mix
On the NBA’s website is a statement that claims, “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” While many share this sentiment, one can make a strong case that Magic Johnson is the best player in NBA history.
Despite the assist records and Finals MVP award as a rookie, Magic Johnson was the only player in league history who could not only play all five positions on the court, but even dominate each position. As a scoring force, Jordan was undeniably better. However, it takes a team to win in the NBA and no one was better at making those around him better than Johnson.
One difference between Jordan and Johnson is characterizing Jordan as a scorer who also made plays versus Johnson, a playmaker who also scored. Although Magic averaged about 10 points fewer per game than Jordan, he scored at a more efficient clip, as can be seen by the difference in true shooting percentage (.610 compared to .569) and effective field-goal percentage (.533 compared to .509).
As far as contributing to his team’s offense, consider the following scenario. First, take Johnson’s and Jordan’s scoring averages. Second, multiply their assist averages by two, as this would approximate the number of points scored off of assists (since we do not know how many assists resulted in three-pointers, this should serve as a fair comparison). Adding up these two figures for each player would give Johnson the advantage over Jordan, 41.9 to 40.7. Thus, it could be argued that Magic Johnson had the greater impact on offense.
In addition, Johnson’s 138 triple-doubles tower above the 28 posted by Jordan during his career.
While Jordan helped to make the NBA popular internationally during the 1990s, Magic Johnson (along with Larry Bird) was the driving force that helped popularize the NBA throughout the United States during the 1980s. By helping to turn the Lakers into a powerhouse, the NBA had a team in the second-biggest media market that suddenly brought in substantial profits for the league.
In the end, player rankings are subjective. But when you think of the very best to ever play in the NBA, be sure to have Magic Johnson among your top players.