Photo: Sports Illustrated
Analyzing the NBA’s bygone times tend to get academic. Eras don’t match up well thanks to play styles and rule changes taking their toll on the game. Additionally, it’s pretty difficult to appreciate key moments before your time. I wasn’t even a thought in 1980 so I can’t draw from personal experience. With that said, there are always a few moments preceding your existence that make you shake your head in amazement.
Sports heads already know the story of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s rookie season. He played phenomenally well throughout the year but everyone knew the Lakers were Kareem’s team. Young Johnson met his ultimate match when Jabbar sprained his ankle in Game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals. LA’s 3-2 lead on Philly gave them a cushion but, without Jabbar in the Spectrum for Game 6, popular opinion suggested Philly had a clear shot to force Game 7. Paul Westhead and his coaching staff turned to the precocious Magic in order to fill the gap at the 5. Then Johnson went above and beyond by guarding Julius Erving and filling seemingly every other position on offense depending on the play.
Pro ballers these days have a hard enough time staying in front of routine slashers as well as being a two-position combo player at most. Therefore, seeing Magic masterfully execute all his responsibilities in a series clincher, as a 20 year old rookie no less, is just awe-inspiring. Versatility is a word often thrown around players with a few skills outside of their traditional role. However, Earvin’s game fit the description to a tee. I can’t name a player who can play all five spots in the current day’s smaller, faster game. Johnson’s multiple facets, in a more physical league mind you, just goes to show how special he was even as a young star.
Earvin’s monstrous 42 points, 15 rebounds seven assists along with three steals helped LA put away Philly 123-107 that night. My Google skills met their match when I tried to find a full, streaming video of the game. The basketball geek in me would’ve loved to see how he guarded Julius, who dropped 27, and outplayed Philly’s front court on both ends. Alas, this edited flick highlighting Earvin’s stat line will do for now. Also, check out the pre and post game interviews. Magic wasn’t and still isn’t up on using them big ‘ol words but it’s still entertaining to see his younger self live in the moment. Jerry Buss and Pat Riley make cameos near the end as well. They were many moons fresher but best believe they were plotting towards a dynasty at that point.
Magic Johnson’s rookie year is widely held as one of the best premiere seasons and rightfully so. He made the All NBA Rookie Team, started in the All Star Game, and won Finals MVP. Magic didn’t have a shot at MVP yet he could’ve won Rookie of the Year. The honor went to future rival Larry Bird but you know what they say about hindsight. I bet a few voters would’ve changed their picks after the season closed: no disrespect to Larry of course. Nevertheless, a few individual accolades, a Championship trophy, and Finals MVP honors after his impressive show in Game 6 set the pace for Magic’s Hall Of Fame career.