It wasn’t until the Lakers had gathered at the airport that they learned the harsh truth: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s ankle hadn’t responded to treatment. He wouldn’t be joining them on the cross-country flight to Philadelphia, where the Lakers would try to close out the 1980 NBA Finals in Game 6 the next night at the Spectrum.
This was Kareem at the peak of his prime: the most dangerous player in the league, winner that season of his sixth MVP Award. As the players waited for their chartered flight out of LAX a pall descended. It was then that the youngest among them, a 20-year-old rookie, had an idea. He approached a flight attendant.
“Can I get on the plane before everyone else?” Magic Johnson asked.
She agreed. She alerted him when it was time and he hustled up the jetway. And a few minutes later, when the rest of the Lakers ducked into the cabin, they saw Magic planted in the seat usually occupied by Kareem. And he had a smile on his face that stretched wider than the Hollywood sign a few miles away.
“Have no fear,” the kid told each of them. “Magic is here!”
It is a matter of both history and legend what happened next. Magic started the game jumping center in place of Kareem. He played all five positions. He wasn’t exactly a hidden gem — just 14 months earlier he’d played in, and won, the most widely watched college basketball game in history, leading Michigan State to the NCAA Tournament title against Larry Bird and Indiana State.
But this was something different. This was something else. He was something else — 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, 14-for-14 from the foul line. The Lakers won the game and the title, 123-107. At the buzzer, the cameras captured Magic in full bloom, hugging teammate Butch Lee, smiling that gazillion-kilowatt smile. And not for the last time.
“I remember that moment so well,” Johnson says over the telephone, his voice still filled with wonder 40 years later. “I was feeling so much joy. But also disbelief. We were champions and we did it the hardest way possible — without the best player in the league, the most accomplished winner at all levels, junior high to the pros, in the history of the game. We wanted to win for the Big Fella. And we did.”
They weren’t the only winners, of course. In so many ways that 1979-80 season was the year that saved professional basketball, that revived and resuscitated a sport that had fallen so far, so fast, that CBS wouldn’t give it a prime-time window on a Friday night in the middle of sweeps month — the game aired on tape-delay on the East Coast at 11:30 p.m.
“You want an idea how things were?” Johnson asks, laughing. “It didn’t occur to us to go to a nightclub after we won, to go out on the town. We went back to the hotel. We gathered in one of the suites. And we turned on the TV and we watched the game.”
The game holds up, too. Call it up on YouTube and there are things that will make you laugh — mostly Lakers assistant Pat Riley looking quite professorial with his tortoise-shell eyeglasses, product-free hair and sports jacket with patches on the elbows. But Magic’s brilliance crosses the decades. So does his chief opponent that series, Julius Erving, who single-handedly tried to spoil Magic’s party that night with 27 points and at least a half-dozen patented holy-cow-did-you-see-that moves.
“That’s what made it extra special, because Doctor J was my hero and he was on top of his game,” Johnson says. “We had to play the perfect game. And we did.”
And even in the moment, you could tell the sands were shifting. Bird had won the Rookie of the Year in 1980, getting 63 of 66 votes (Magic got the other three). The brand of ball the Lakers played was old-school and pleasing — all five playing defense, all five touching the ball on offense, the master engineer wearing No. 32 in purple treating the ball as a conductor does a baton.
“We had Kareem, but never forget that we perfected small-ball,” Magic says. “The stuff the Bulls and the Warriors did later on, the Showtime Lakers did all of that before any of them. We proved you could win a different way, and a way that was easy for people to enjoy.”
The NBA, like most sports, does unwittingly encourage recency bias, and it was the emergence of the Warriors that reportedly spiked Michael Jordan’s interest in making “The Last Dance” a reality, to remind the kids that Steph, Klay and the others didn’t invent basketball.
Of course, Michael and the Bulls didn’t either.
“It’s a great game and has been a great game for so many years, from the start,” Johnson says. “Don’t forget the ones who came before you.”
He pauses and laughs again.
“Don’t forget the Showtime Lakers, now.”
In so many ways, the Showtime Lakers were born that night in Philadelphia, a brand of ball that would rule the next decade — five championships, nine trips to the Finals between 1980 and 1991. Paul Westhead was the coach in 1980, but the homeroom teacher to his left would take over two years later and so would the Hollywood-ready team, Jack Nicholson in the front row and Magic at the steering wheel.
Game 6 was tied 60-all at the half when the Lakers came out of the locker room and put together a 14-0 run that all these years later still takes your breath away — the fastbreak furious but controlled, the defense swarming, Magic firing off no-look passes and draining baby hook shots and driving the lane and fighting for offensive rebounds. He had a perfect wingman in Jamaal Wilkes (37 points), and he all but turned the lights out at the Spectrum.
“We were always a third-quarter team,” he says. “We knew that if we could get you close at the half that we’d turn it on and then turn you into the desperate team. Now, the Sixers were great, and Doctor J was great, so they came back at us. But we had just enough.”
By the end, Bill Russell, sitting courtside, seemed to understand exactly what he’d just witnessed.
“Playing this well in the Finals is incredible,” he said on CBS, “and I ought to know.”
The timeless ones know, all right, and they know about who came before: Michael before Steph, Magic and Larry before Michael, Russell before them, all of them perfectly happy to celebrate today’s champions, sure.
But don’t forget about them, now.
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