Now that “The Last Dance,” the documentary miniseries about the career of Michael Jordan has aired, I’d like to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history. Spoiler alert. It’s not Michael Jordan in the 1998 NBA finals.
Let’s start in October 1979 when Magic Johnson began his rookie season with the Los Angeles by leaping into the arms a surprised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following the latter’s sky hook that won the opener. Calm down, Magic. This is only the first game, and we’ve got a long way to go.
Johnson, known for his enthusiasm on and off the court, had already had his share of success in basketball. Johnson picked up his moniker after he had a triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists as a 15-year-old sophomore playing for Everett High School in Lansing Michigan.
Johnson finished his high school career with a state championship and two All-Star selections before heading to Michigan State. In 1979, in his sophomore year at Michigan State, Johnson led the Spartans to the NCAA championship, beating Indiana State, led by a guy named Larry Bird.
After winning an NCAA title, Johnson was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers and wound up in the NBA finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. The teams split the first four games. The Lakers won the fifth game at home, 108-103, but Abdul-Jabbar suffered a sprained ankle in that game.
Flash forward to May 16, 1980. Abdul-Jabbar stayed home as his teammates boarded a plane for Philadelphia. No one expected the Lakers to have a chance in Game 6 in Philadelphia – except Johnson. The Magic Man reportedly told his teammates on the flight: “Never fear, E.J. is here.”
Lakers Coach Paul Westhead decided to try something different. He inserted Johnson in the starting lineup at center, instead of the point-guard position. Johnson jumped for the ball in the opening tip and then played every position on the floor in front of a sellout Philadelphia crowd.
I watched every minute of this game on tape delay because the NBA finals weren’t televised live. I believe it was the best one-game performance I have ever seen. Johnson, 20 at the time, scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists as the Lakers won 123-107.
With the “Last Dance” being crammed down our throats every night this week, most pundits want to give Jordan the greatest of all times (G.O.A.T.) award. Those who don’t want it to be awarded to LeBron James. But from my perspective, Johnson was the best overall NBA player.
I’m not alone. Pat Riley is a prominent Jordan/James dissenter. Riley, president of the Miami Heat, coached Johnson from 1981 to 1990, as the Lakers won four more NBA championships during the Magic years. He puts Johnson first and James second for their abilities to do it all.
Another player that also should be in the G.O.A.T. discussion is Bird of the Boston Celtics. Johnson and Bird brought the NBA into the forefront with their fierce rivalry in the 1980’s. They faced off in the finals three times that decade, with the Lakers winning two of three in that series.
I’m not sure if I saw all 19 games, but I saw most of them, and it was something special if you loved team basketball. No one since that time, including James, had the all-around game of Johnson. I believe Johnson could have scored as many points as Jordan if that had been his goal.
But Magic was an unselfish superstar who didn’t beat his own drum. He was glad to let to his teammates share the spotlight. His pinpoint passing put him fourth on the NBA all-time assist leaders. The four ahead of him are John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Mark Jackson..
James, the player I put second on my G.O.A.T. list, actually plays a similar game to Johnson, although he wants more of the spotlight than Magic. Both men had the size, speed, acceleration and court vision. James is third on the all-time scoring list and seventh on the all-time assist list.
No one that saw Jordan play doubted his overall athletic ability. He was a great defender and scorer. But he was also a selfish player who loved the spotlight. He ushered in the Kobe Bryant era, where players “want to be like Mike,” which means the star of their respective teams.
The teams I’ve enjoyed watching the most through the years are the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980’s and my team, the San Antonio Spurs, who won five titles of their own from 1999 to 2014. The reason is that these teams played like teams, with unselfish play the common denominator.