1984 NBA Finals: Magic Johnson is Something Special

1984 NBA Finals

Larry v. Magic: Game 8

Larry v. Magic: Game-by-Game Summary
Larry v. Magic: Game-by-Game Media Coverage

Ever since fifth, sixth, seventh grade, I've always been on a winner," he explains. "I could not imagine what it's like not to be on a good team."

The converse is equally true. No team with a Magic Johnson could fail to be successful. It's entirely possible that, like Larry Bird, he has established such a high standard of individual excellence that people no longer fully appreciate how special he is. At least Jerry West thinks so.

"Long ago," argues the Lakers general manager, "Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) got to the point where you ignore him because he is so consistently great. Magic is now in the same category."

Lest this evaluation be dismissed as pure oratory, consider some of Magic's 1983-84 statistical accomplishments:

He had 12 triple doubles (i.e., double-figure totals in points, rebounds and assists), giving him a lifetime total of 58.

He had a career-high 875 assists, despite missing 15 games with a dislocated right index finger.

He broke his own All-Star game assist record with 22.

He had double figures in assists in each of his first 44 games.

He was the NBA Player of the Month for October-November, averaging 15.1 assists per game.

The inescapable physical fact concerning Magic Johnson is that he is 6 feet, 9 inches tall. He has the physique of a power forward, the finesse of a small forward and the quickness of a 6-foot guard. He is, therefore, a unique historical force in the history of basketball. Just as Bobby Orr blurred thedistinction between a forward and a defenseman in hockey, so has Magic distorted basketball's classical concept of his position. In the Lakers' triumph over Phoenix last week, his primary defensive assignment was to guard 6-9 forward Larry Nance, while at the other end of the floor he sometimes found himself guarded by 6-1 guard Rod Foster. Flexibility is his middle name.

The idea of a 6-9 playmaking guard is still difficult to digest, but ballhandling just comes naturally to Magic. "What happened was that when I was young, I used to play a lot of full-court basketball with myself," Magic explains. "I'd be, maybe, Philadelphia on one team and Detroit on the other. So there I was, dribbling up and down the court all the time. I also used to play against my brother Larry, who's almost three years older than I am. He had a lot of quickness, and I had to learn to protect the basketball."

At Lansing (Mich.) Everett High School, he would play either forward or center defensively. If the opponents were in a zone, he would become a guard to initiate the offense. In a man-to-man situation, the coaches wanted him down low to take advantage of his size.

He developed a hybrid offensive game as a collegian that relied very little on a standard stop-and-pop jump shot. As a result, people still sometimes assume he has no outside touch. It wasn't until he shot 9 for 10 in the 1979 NCAA semifinal game against Pennsylvania that the pros realized his true scoring potential. "They were all saying at the time," recalls Magic, " He can do everything but shoot.' In my mind, I knew I could."

Even now, people sag inside, daring him to shoot. Phoenix did so in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and Magic hit six of his first seven outside shots, some from the edge of three-point territory.

Whether or not Magic is the second coming of Jon McGlocklin from the outside, the record book shows that in his five-year pro career he has shot .530, .532, .537, .548 and .565 from the floor. Included among his 2714 lifetime regular-season and playoff field goals are enough outside shots to make Magic's point.

But if he never shot once from beyond 4 feet, he would still be a magical player. Scoring, rebounding and defending are adjuncts to his raison d'etre, which is to pass.

Magic Johnson may be the last great middle man on the fast break. Most three-on-two or four-on-two breaks these days end with a jump shot, often for the ballhandler. When Magic runs a three-on-two or four-on-two (or even four- on-three), there is a better than 90-percent chance someone will get a layup. "Most guards aren't capable of doing that anymore," agrees West. "Maybe there's just too much zone and too much walk-it-up play in college now. It's more of a coach's game, and players don't develop those skills. This guy has transcended all that."

"I just want to get the best shot every time," Johnson says. "I want to make sure we don't settle for the jump shot. A 2-footer is better than a 15- footer."

What Magic knows very well, of course, is that opponents are terrified that he will keep the ball and go soaring in for a dunk. Once he crosses midcourt on the fly, that fear permeates the defensive atmosphere. "Oh, my size is definitely an advantage," he submits. "Even if there are big men back there, I can take it to the basket, and they know it." Passing lanes open up as a consequence.

His size is of incalculable advantage in other ways. Surely there has never been a guard more capable of hitting baseline cutters with crisp passes. One recurring image of the halfcourt Magic is of him whipping a pass underneath off the dribble to, say, Jamaal Wilkes. "He just looks over everyone he plays," says West.

The fabled Magic Johnson enthusiasm is still present today, but it isn't always on display. "He's a true professional now," lauds West. At one time, he did everything with great flair. Now, he just plays, but he now sort of projects the excitement Willie Mays did in playing baseball."

Magic says it's a matter of picking his spots now. "I know I can't go jumping around and hugging people every night," he says. "I look for the right occasion. Maybe if we're off on a run of 12 or 14 points, I will try to keep it going by really showing enthusiasm. I find my situations in games, and definitely in practice."

Surprisingly, Magic contends he has not gone completely LA, no matter how glamourized Magic Johnson the persona has become as opposed to Earvin Johnson the ballplayer. "It wasn't as easy a transition for me to live out here as people thought," he insists. "I'm still a Midwestern country boy. I like the outdoors. I like to go off by myself to a lake and relax. I miss things such as the picnics we used to have back home. You don't seem to have those family- type situations out here as much."

A final series - especially a high-visibility series such as this one - is almost guaranteed to bring out the best in Magic Johnson. Remember that the 20-year-old Magic played perhaps the finest individual playoff game in history in Game 6 of the '80 finals against Philadelphia.

Magic Johnson is all about winning. He's known championships at the high school, college (Michigan State won the NCAA title in 1979) and pro levels, and he likes the feeling . . . especially the one in the NBA.

"The others were nice, but when you win it all in the NBA you're the World Champs, and you get the diamond ring to prove it," he says.

He's got two rings already, and let the Celtics be forewarned: when it comes to championships, the man is downright avaricious.

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