(As the NBA off-season continues to drag along, the SB Nation network of basketball blogs discuss a wide variety of topics to keep the ball rolling. Today we were asked what the biggest disappointment of our franchise was. Here's what we thought, how about you?)
Basketball is filled with busts and disappointments. There are a handful of Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi, and Sam Bowie stories out there that can be scribed about time and time again. Tales of talent filled teams that should have beaten the world but fell short in the end. It's a beautiful sport; my first love. While the play on the court is summarized by wins and losses, our endearment for the sport, teams, and players is deeper than advanced statistics and winning percentages. The emotional highs, and lows, of being a fan leave memories engraved deep into who we are. Throughout the Lakers' franchise there has been no shortage of hall of fame players who have come and gone, moments of triumph that will forever echo as we look back, and failures that haunt the hallways of the Forum and Staples Center. However, there was only one Magic Johnson, and his surprise retirement from the world of basketball stands out as the single most tragic event in the history of the franchise.
In 1979 the Lakers organization changed forever as they drafted Earvin "Magic" Johnson out of Michigan State with the first overall pick. The same rookie who said the most amazing thing about joining the Lakers was playing alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would proceed to start for the injured center that same year while leading the Lakers to a championship. A rookie point guard put together 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists... starting at center... to clinch the NBA finals. This was the real deal; this was basketball bliss. A career that couldn't have started in any more awe-inspiring fashion would leave the world speechless in the end.
The mighty Magic Johnson, who had brought a new generation of NBA fans into existence, was forced away from the sport he was ambassador to. There was nothing he could do about it. The flashy no look passes were gone, and all that was left were the memories. Twelve years of playing in the league at the level he did is more than most NBA players could ever dream of. Five NBA championships, three NBA finals MVPs, three NBA league MVPs? Legend. There are no disappointments in what he was able to accomplish as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It began with his first game as a member of the Lakers; how he jumped up and down beaming with joy as he hung on Kareem's neck after he hit the game winning shot. How he proclaimed, "Don't fear 'cause 32 is here," then went on to capture his first championship against the 76ers as the starting center for Los Angeles. The 16 points and 19 assists against the Celtics to put the championship series in the history books in 1987. The back-to-back championship in 1988, coming down to a decisive game 7 against Isaiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. All standalone moments to glorify the memory of Magic Johnson the basketball player. But it was his love of the game, the way he played it with such grace, and the smiles before, during, and after putting an opponent down that fill the blanks throughout the definition of Magic Johnson.
It was only a few short months after facing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals where he averaged 18.6 points, 12.4 assists, and 8 rebounds per game yet still came up short. No Lakers fan could have predicted that series would become the swan song for Magic Johnson. The Lakers were going to bounce back, take on the Jordan led Bulls, and return the Larry O'Brien trophy where it rightfully belonged. The Lakers-Celtics battles that Magic Johnson fought through would become the Lakers-Bulls war with Michael Jordan, and he too would face the same fate as Larry Bird. But everything changed in a moment that ESPN voted the 7th most memorable moment in sports over the last 25 years in 2008.
On November 7th, 1991, the world watched as Magic Johnson announced he would immediately retire from the NBA because he had contracted the HIV virus. At a time when HIV research was still in its' infancy stages (the first combination drug therapy wasn't FDA approved until 1997), he stood and smiled with the people as he always did. The same smile the city of Los Angeles came to love spread across his face as he cracked jokes with the media that had gathered. The charismatic young man that grew up under the bright lights of Hollywood didn't break stride as he bid farewell to the life he once knew. Despite the odds being stacked against him, no life threatening virus was going to stop him from remaining positive in his outlook, his life was going to go on. "Of course I will miss the battles and the wars, and I will miss you guys, but life goes on.", he told the world. And then, just like that, his life went on. His life went on as he has helped educate the world about HIV and AIDS. His life went on as he became a successful businessman, part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and even reached his original aspiration of being a television commentator (he was a communication studies major at Michigan State). But that singular moment when his old life ended and his new life began remains a frozen moment in time for Lakers fans.
This was a hero defeated.
A sport has the ability to touch lives in ways that are deeper than discussing the intricacies of the X's and O's involved. Magic Johnson was more than a basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, he was a friend. He let Los Angeles into his heart and the city did the same for him. He was the guy to root for, to drop everything to watch, who never ceased to amaze the world on the hardwood court. All while reminding us that he was just one of us with his down to earth candor and easygoing demeanor. Magic Johnson being exacted into retirement so abruptly, with no way of changing the cruel twist of fate, will forever be the most disappointing moment for the Los Angeles Lakers as a franchise. Thankfully, he found a way for his life to go on, just like he said it would.
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