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Winning Time: Magic Johnson’s historic Game 6 performance in the 1980 NBA Finals

Every NBA legend has their magnum opus on the basketball court. For Magic Johnson, that moment came during the NBA Finals of his rookie season to clinch the title, all of which is the subject of the season finale of HBO’s “Winning Time.”

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Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Each week, 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 by using the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

Prior to being known as one of the world's best tweeters, Magic Johnson was known as one of the world’s best basketball players. Any discussion of the greatest point guards and greatest players of all time must include Magic, and one of the finest performances of his illustrious career was the subject of the finale of season one of “Winning Time.”

In a real-life event that really was seemingly torn straight from a script in Hollywood, the Lakers lost their star player (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to injury in the 1980 NBA Finals only to see their heralded rookie step into his place and guide the team to an improbable victory.

And overall, the main gist of Sunday’s episode was accurate with very little deviation from the truth, as Magic and the Lakers’ unprecedented move at the time of going small in literally the biggest game of the season paid off.

With effectively the entire episode dedicated to Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, the entirety of this week’s fact-checking piece will be dedicated to the same subject.

Kareem’s injury

The episode opens with Kareem’s injury, which did occur in the third quarter of Game 5 of the Finals on a seemingly routine skyhook. It was, as later became obvious, a very serious injury and forced Cap out of the game.

But it was only a brief absence as, improbably, Kareem returned to the game in the fourth quarter and powered the Lakers to the win. He finished the game with 40 points on 16-24 shooting as well as 15 rebounds and four blocks in 41 minutes on a badly injured ankle.

As remarkable Magic’s performance was in Game 6, Kareem’s performance in Game 5 deserves lots of plaudits, too, and is often overlooked.

The plane ride

After the Lakers realized they would be without Kareem for Game 6, the mood was predictably somber. Kareem averaged 33.4 points per game in the series and had a 38-point game to go along with his 40-point game in Game 5.

But perhaps one of the best moments to illustrate Magic and the impact he had on the team off the court came on that plane ride out to Philadelphia for Game 6. Never short on confidence, Magic actually entered the plane listening to “Golden Time of Day” — as he was in the episode — and changed the entire atmosphere, as Pearlman wrote.

Those players assigned to coach were almost always placed alongside an empty chair (also purchased by the club). Seating was based upon a loose combination of seniority, status and playing time. Therefore, Abdul-Jabbar was always in the first row of first class, positioned in the aisle so that his storklike legs could extend into the walkway. This time, as Chones found his spot and Wilkes found his spot and Holland found his spot, passengers could hear the increasingly loud sound of someone belting out “Golden Time of Day,” the soulful hit from Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.

People let me tell you
There’s a time in your life when you find out who you are
That’s the golden time of day...

It was Magic Johnson. As he turned from the jetway onto the plane, the rookie smiled widely. He usually sat in the second row of first class, alongside Cooper. This time, however, he stopped at Abdul-Jabbar’s vacant seat.

“Have no fear!” he yelped. “Motherf------ Magic Johnson is here!”

He plopped down and continued crooning.

“Right then I knew we were going to win,” said Cooper. “I just knew it.”

The one area of difference was whose idea it was for Magic to play center. In the episode, he comes onto the plane with the idea and convinces his teammates and, eventually, Paul Westhead it can work.

In reality, it was Westhead who broached the idea to Magic while on the plane to Philadelphia, although Magic was hardly opposed to the plan.

Once the plane was in midair, Westhead and Johnson met in the bulkhead. The coach had this preposterous idea, one the rookie would surely cringe at.

“I’m thinking of starting you at center,” he said. “I know it’s crazy, and you’re best at point guard, but hear me out. I just think that—”

“I love it!” Johnson said, beaming.

“You do?” Westhead replied.

“Love it!” Johnson said. “Let’s do it.”

Three years earlier, Johnson had dabbled at center at Everett High School. There was a beautiful full-circle quality to the idea, a return to the basics of the game. The following morning, during a quick walk-through at the Spectrum, Westhead explained his plan to the other Lakers. “I wasn’t sure what Westhead’s intent was,” Wilkes said. “I guess he was saying, ‘We just lost our best player, but we have this young, charismatic phenom who is going to make it all right.”

While it was Westhead’s idea to start Magic, the episode also details a conversation between him and Jack McKinney before the plane ride. McKinney gives Westhead an envelope with his game plan for a starting five against Philly without Kareem “in case it came up,” which feels like a very oddly specific circumstance to just randomly scheme for.

According to Pearlman’s book, McKinney did do some playoff scouting for the Lakers, but that only came before the team let him know he wasn’t going to return as head coach. It’s unknown if he was still scouting for the team in the Finals, but there was no mention of the exchange either in the book or anywhere else. The reality is that McKinney and Westhead had little interaction after the former was named the head coach for the rest of the season.

Game time

Impressively, the game itself plays out relatively true to form for the most part. You can find the actual game on YouTube — though be warned, as it feels like an entirely different game from today, as the Lakers took only four 3-pointers IN THE ENTIRE SERIES — but there isn’t a lot of deviation from reality.

Magic did, in fact, give Jim Chones the proverbial boot to take the opening tip... then lost it. He then forced a jump ball literally seconds later... and lost that tip, too.

Fortunately, that was not an omen for the game as the Lakers jumped out to an early 7-0 lead.

The Sixers did seem unprepared early on, but the lead never grew larger than seven, and Philly actually controlled most of the second quarter and held a lead as big as 52-44. Eventually, the Lakers tied it up at 60-60 and nearly went into the locker room with a lead when, as shown in the episode, Magic nearly canned a skyhook from beyond half court at the buzzer.

Magic led all scorers with 22 points in the first half. But in real life, halftime was not spent — at least not in its entirety — with Westhead citing Shakespeare.

In the locker room at halftime, Westhead let Johnson have it, imploring him to play stronger interior defense. After the coach finished, Johnson gathered his teammates around. “We’re about to win this game,” he said. “You’ve got to believe that. We’re about to be champions.”

In his bed, Abdul-Jabbar could barely watch. “It was a real nervous time,” he said. “I was sweating badly. Not your classic fan reaction. I had to turn the sound off.”

(Side note: at least watch the broadcast of the game linked above just after halftime, where Brent Musberger talks live on air to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on an actual telephone as the broadcast tries unsuccessfully to pick up the conversation. It was peak 1980.)

The Lakers responded in the second half by racing out to a 12-0 run and opening up a double-digit lead it carried throughout the third quarter. Improbably, despite being with Kareem, the Lakers dominated on the glass, outrebounding Philly 52-36. Four different Lakers had at least 10 rebounds and that work in the paint helped them build their second-half lead.

Led by Julius Erving in the fourth quarter, though, the Sixers came roaring back to within one possession. Largely speaking, though, Magic never looked tired, despite playing 47 minutes in the game. And unlike the episode, there was no rallying moment where he had to be helped to the sideline while looking completely out of gas.

There also was no report of there being a moment on the bench when Pat Riley told Magic the vote totals for Rookie of the Year as a motivation tactic, though the total he cites — 63 votes for Larry Bird, three for Magic Johnson — was the actual voting breakdown.

The scene of Michael Cooper being absolutely destroyed on the way to the basket did happen at the hands of Daryl Dawkins, but it was not in the final minutes of the game; it was in the opening minutes of the fourth. In fact, the episode tried to squeeze a lot of things in the final minutes that did not happen.

At one point, the scoreboard on the television reads 104-103 for the Lakers with 2:45 left. Considering the Lakers won 123-107, there was not a 19-4 run in the final three minutes.

In fact, that scoreline specifically never happened. The closest to it was the Lakers lead 103-101 with 5:11 left when they called a timeout during a Sixers run. The score never got closer than that the rest of the way, though.

Magic did punctuate his win with a huge dunk late but, much like he was not dunked on my Dr. J as portrayed earlier in the season, the dunk was not on Erving. He did finish with 20 points in the second half for his total of 42.

Jamaal Wilkes, though, deserves a shoutout as well for scoring 25 points in the second half and 37 in total in the win, as the pair combined for nearly 80 points. The only other instances of two teammates scoring at least 37 points in a Finals game came when Elgin Baylor and Jerry West did so in 1963 with the Lakers, and when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James did it in 2016 with the Cavaliers.

Magic’s performance earned him the Finals MVP honors, and while there was a maybe slight bit of envy portrayed by Kareem’s character in the show, that was never documented in real life, as we couldn’t find any mention of Kareem being upset about not winning that award. That portrayal may have simply been a way to point out just how good Kareem was in the series, and that there was a strong case for him to be the Finals MVP.

The trophy presentation and celebration itself with Musberger, Dr. Buss and commissioner Larry O’Brien was, actually, pretty close to verbatim in the show as it was in real life.

In all, this was perhaps the episode that stayed closest to reality. The liberties taken were small, creative ones that didn’t really change what happened. And the reason why “Winning Time” didn’t veer far from the truth was because the truth was, really, something seemingly ripped straight from the silver screen.

Most stories from this article via “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” by Jeff Pearlman, which is a must-read for fans of “Winning Time,” and Lakers fans in general, and served as the source material for the show. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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