Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a daily look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember Magic Johnson.
“I’m not going to be there!”
If you’re as tuned into the Lakers as I imagine you are — you’re reading this website, after all — you can see the meme in your head when reading the above words. There he is, Magic Johnson, shaking his head and uttering those famous last words as he spoke to a gaggle of reporters about resigning his post as Lakers President of Basketball Operations before he even notified his boss Jeanie Buss.
It was, probably, the most disappointing (and frustrating) part of Magic’s tenure as a front office executive. More than his joking about Luol Deng’s untradable contract during a post trade deadline media scrum, more than him needlessly trashing D’Angelo Russell in the wake of trading the former No. 2 overall pick, more than the tire-fire barrage of leaks when the team was attempting to trade for Anthony Davis. Magic bailed on the organization and did it in a way that sullied his name to nearly every Lakers fan.
If this is how you remember Magic Johnson, I get it. I really do. When an executive — even one who doubles as a franchise icon — leaves an organization and fans understand that, even in the face of undoubted messiness, it was a good thing for the organization’s long-term outcome, it’s going to color our view of that executive forever more. This is how the world works and Magic is not above being held to this standard.
That said, regardless of the ruin Magic left in his wake, this isn’t how he should be remembered as a Laker. No, Magic’s time as a player was too great, his success too overwhelming. He was too special an on-court talent to have any of his future missteps within the franchise — either in the front office or during his protracted time as head coach — make too large a dent in his overall legacy.
This might seem like hyperbole. It is not. Magic is not only the greatest point guard the NBA has ever seen, he is, arguably, one of the top 5 players ever. He’s also my favorite player ever and, honestly, the player who most embodies what I value most in a basketball player and teammate.
As an individual talent, there really was not (and still is not) a player quite like Magic. Many will cite LeBron as the closest facsimile, but even that’s not quite accurate when really comparing the two. ‘Bron is an amazing player and clearly one of the greatest of all time (if not the greatest), but Magic had more sauce and flair to his game and, based on era, was a more refined post player with a variety of hooks and off-balance finishes honed from years of playing out of the post. ‘Bron is the superior run-and-jump athlete (by several factors), an above the rim force whose combination of quick twitch movement and strength — LeBron plays at about 40 pounds heavier than Magic did in his prime — make him functionally and aesthetically, a different player.
Forget comps, though, because comparing anyone to Magic is a disservice to everyone involved. Not because players can’t measure up to each other, but because why compare artists whose uniqueness is what makes them what they are. Magic, truly, was one of a kind and stands alone as a one-of-one.
When Magic came to the NBA in 1980, 6’9” players weren’t supposed to be point guards. They weren’t supposed to handle the ball like he did. They weren’t supposed to push the pace, run a fast break, or dissect defenses like him. They weren’t supposed to control the halfcourt offense like he could, play from the wing or the post with equal aplomb, or do it all with that much joy and enthusiasm.
Watching him play was an experience like no other. He raced up the floor, but because he he was as big as a power forward and took such long strides, he never seemed like he was in a hurry. He had a wonderful hesitation dribble and ability to feint movements while never breaking stride; defenses never seemed sure of where he was going with the ball and couldn’t stay in front of him. His ability to manipulate ball placement once picking up his dribble was a key part of his dark arts of deception, slipping that orange sphere into a single hand away from his body, looping it around his waist, or tucking it behind his head with both hands (a la a soccer throw-in) to always keep defenders guessing.
He’d fake a shot and pass. Fake a pass and shoot. He’d inside-out dribble and then go around the back to turn a defender in circles like they were a blindfolded child playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Because he was so tall and coaches had no choice but to guard him with smaller players (even most shooting guards were still too short to obstruct his vision), he could see over the top of any defense and would fire passes at all angles and with uncanny timing, often zipping the ball right past the head of a weakside defender who wasn’t even looking.
He had every pass imaginable in his tool box, whether he was looking in the direction he was going to pass or not. Behind-the-back, one-handed touch, full-court baseball, two-handed over the head, bullets, lobs, wraparounds, nutmegs. You name it, he had it. He threw, maybe, the best one-handed bounce pass in the history of the game, rocketing the ball at all angles and velocities and heights to get his teammates the ball in a good position to score.
And he was clutch, too, consistently recognizing big moments and performing to an incredible level in the game’s crucial moments. We know what he did in a NBA Finals-clinching Game 6 as a rookie when Kareem was out injured. We also know about the baby hook he hit to sink the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, giving the Lakers a 3-1 lead and control of the series. But he hit so many other last-second shots and game winners, it’s impossible to list them all. A few of my favorites include a running wrong-legged bank shot to beat the Celtics in Boston, an incredible OT-forcing 3 against the Bullets from near halfcourt, and a double-OT game winner in Denver where he had a defender draped all over him but he still buried the shot.
My podcast partner in crime and friend of this site (and of all Lakers fans he has not blocked on Twitter) Pete Zayas once said that, “basketball looks like Magic Johnson and sounds like Chick Hearn.” There’s really no higher a compliment than that; Magic was the personification of how the game should be played at the highest level. And he’ll always be that for me, no matter what came after.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. If you want to further support his work, you can do so at his Patreon. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).