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Winning Time: Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s rocky start together

Pitted against one another in “Winning Time,” were Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar really at odds early in their time together as Lakers?

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Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Set Number: X37681

Each week of season two, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

When it comes to television, drama sells. It’s not some mystery. It’s kind of the reason we have this series of articles to find the through line of what is factual amidst the drama.

So, when Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar squared off against one another in the premiere of season two, there were some rightful questions about how much of it was true.

The reality is that there was plenty of tension between the two coming into the 1980-81 season. Never short on confidence, Magic got plenty more with his Game 6 performance in the 1980 NBA Finals to win the title, a performance that came with Kareem sidelined.

Kareem, meanwhile, was a prideful man who had helped the Lakers get to the brink of a title and was the MVP of the whole league. He was the leader of the team. He was Cap.

When the preseason rolled around, an immovable object met an unstoppable force. Kareem himself talked about it in his autobiography, “Giant Steps:”

We didn’t repeat in 1981 as NBA Champs because Earvin got injured, and when he came back he had forgotten what had made him and us so successful. Mammoth public success is hard to handle at any age; at twenty-one it’s got to be real difficult... After the champion- ship the team got put in the back seat and, for public relations purposes, Magic was moved out front.

He wasn’t the only one who noticed a change in Magic. In his own book, “The Speed Game,” Paul Westhead was pretty brutally honest about the situation:

Magic had been struggling to take symbolic charge of the team ever since we won the world championship. After Magic started at center for the injured Kareem in that final game, he felt that it was his team and his position as leader. During the next season, as early as training camp, Magic was flexing his muscles as team leader over Kareem. Magic was trying to exert his influence and control the tempo of the game to his liking… He had gotten too much, too soon. We had a monster on our hands and someone was going to get hurt.

Because of the severely sprained ankle, Kareem wasn’t able to get in shape during the offseason. As a result, he came into camp “horribly out of shape,” as Westhead described, which did not help matters.

Now, the deviation comes in there ever being a Jimmy Butler-Timberwolves situation. By no account did Kareem take the reserves and go toe-to-toe with the starters. And he wasn’t injured in some scrap in training camp as a result of it, as we previously covered.

But it wasn’t smooth sailing between the Lakers’ two leaders. At least not early on. It wasn’t Shaq and Kobe levels, but it definitely wasn’t LeBron and AD.

Free agency changes the game

One of the other storylines about the episode, as it was for much of last season, is the finances involved with running the Lakers. Early in the episode, Dr. Jerry Buss mentions new rules set to begin the following season in regard to contracts.

The new rules? Free agency.

It’s hard to imagine a time when free agency, which now is the most popular part of the year, once never existed. But until the 1980s, it didn’t exist. But the imminent changes made most owners believe contracts were going to start rapidly growing, which they were.

So, Dr. Buss got ahead of the curve and started giving the Lakers pay raises on his own, an accurate aspect of the episode. Kareem’s salary jumped from $650,000 to $1,000,000, making him one of only two players at the time to clear the $1,000,000 annually mark. He would soon be joined by Magic with his famous 25-year, $25,000,000 deal.

They weren’t the only ones to get raises. Michael Cooper’s salary jumped from $35,000 to $250,000. Norm Nixon went from $65,000 to $400,000. Jamaal Wilkes received a $250,000 raise. It was certainly not the norm at the time and caused a lot of pushback among other owners, but getting ahead of the curve was the type of revolutionary move that Dr. Buss was known for that led to plenty of success.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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