Along with Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson was at the forefront of a basketball renaissance in the 1980s. The pair not only impressed with their excellence on the court, they took the popularity of the NBA to another level.
The league set new records for attendance, merchandise sales and television ratings. The NBA also saw an increase in its global impact, which would rise to even higher levels with the arrival of Michael Jordan later in the decade.
On the court, Johnson was unlike anything the NBA had ever seen. At 6’9,” he was the tallest point guard in league history. This created matchup nightmares on both ends of the floor, and allowed the multi-talented Johnson to play any position on the court. His strength and athleticism gave him the ability to score on any defender, and his size gave him the ability to rebound against centers and power forwards.
But what truly set Johnson apart from his peers was his passing. His instincts and superior court vision made him equally effective in half-court settings or on the fastbreak. He made no-look passes and half-court alley-oops look easy. Even his teammates couldn’t believe how the ball ended up in their hands.
Johnson’s gifts were apparent early on. He was rarely seen without a basketball as a kid, and earned the nickname “Magic” as a prep star at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan. This was also the time he began building his championship resume, winning a state title his senior year at Everett, where he averaged 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.
Two years later in 1979, the young phenom won an NCAA title at Michigan State in nearby East Lansing. The championship game received the highest TV ratings in NCAA history, as Johnson’s Spartans defeated Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores 75-64. The All-American guard was named Outstanding Player of the Final Four, averaging 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists, while shooting 68 percent from the field and 86 percent from the free-throw line.
Johnson left Michigan State after his sophomore year, and was chosen by the Los Angeles Lakers with the first pick of the NBA Draft on June 25, 1979. The transition was seamless, as the rookie guard continued his stellar play, averaging 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.4 steals with his new team. He also had a chance to add another championship to his budding legacy.
The Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in seven years, setting the stage for one of the defining moments of Johnson’s career. After league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured in Game 5 against the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers, the versatile rookie took his place at center for Game 6. He responded with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in one of the most memorable and improbable performances in league history. The Lakers won the game and the NBA title, giving Johnson a high school, NCAA and NBA championship all in the span of four seasons.
After a knee injury limited Johnson to 37 games in 1980-81, the All-Star found himself back in the NBA Finals in 1982. The Lakers once again defeated an excellent 76ers team in six games, with Johnson winning his second Finals MVP.
In 1982-83, Johnson earned his first of nine straight First Team All-NBA selections. He also led the league in assists for the first time at 10.5 per game. The next season he set a career-high at 13.1. Johnson would go on to average double figures in assists nine straight seasons, the second longest streak in NBA history behind John Stockton.
The 1983-84 season marked another notable first for Johnson, as he would meet Bird and his Boston Celtics in the Finals for the first time. The matchup didn’t disappoint, going a full seven games. With the NBA title on the line, the Celtics won 111-102, giving Finals MVP Bird some revenge after losing the NCAA Championship Game to Johnson five years earlier.
The tables were turned in 1985, though, as the Lakers defeated Boston in six games. It was the third NBA championship in Johnson’s six years in Los Angeles.
In 1986-87, Johnson had arguably the best year of his career. He set a career-high with 23.9 points per game, and averaged 6.3 rebounds, a league-leading 12.2 assists and 1.7 steals. He also won his first NBA MVP award. To top it all off, Johnson won his third Finals MVP, averaging 26.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 13.0 assists and 2.3 steals in a 4-2 series win over the Celtics, his last Finals matchup against Bird.
The Lakers would repeat as NBA champions in 1987-88, coming back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Detroit Pistons in seven games. Johnson averaged 21.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 13.0 assists in the series. It was the last of his five NBA titles with the “Showtime” Lakers.
The individual accomplishments would keep coming for Johnson, though. He won back-to-back league MVPs in 1988-89 and 89-90, averaging 22.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 12.8 assists in the former and 22.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 11.5 assists in the latter. He also won All-Star Game MVP in 1990.
After another outstanding season in 1990-91, Johnson dropped a bombshell on the sports world. On November 7, 1991, he announced he was HIV-positive and would be retiring from the NBA. In another signature moment from his career, Johnson came back to play in the 1992 All-Star Game. He won MVP honors with 25 points, five rebounds and nine assists, while going 9-12 from the field, including 3-3 from three-point range.
The 12-time All-Star was selected to play as part of USA’s “Dream Team” in the 1992 Summer Olympics. In what is commonly regarded as the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, the “Dream Team” obliterated its competition en route to the Gold Medal.
After four years away from the NBA, Johnson came out of retirement in 1995-96. With his weight up to 255 pounds, he spent most of his time at power forward. He averaged 14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists in 32 games, before retiring for good after the Lakers’ first-round playoff exit.
Johnson was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. In 906 career regular season games, he averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists and 1.9 steals, while shooting 52 percent from the field and 84.8 percent from the free-throw line. In 190 postseason games, he averaged 19.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 12.3 assists and 1.9 steals, and shot 50.6 percent from the field and 83.8 percent from the line.