This Week in Sports History: Magic Johnson debuts in Los Angeles

This column seeks to profile important events in the history of sports.

In the ’80s and ’90s, basketball was a spectacle the likes of which we may never see again. A steadily growing sport in the U.S. for many years prior, these two decades catapulted basketball into the international eye, as talent exploded outward from every corner of America. 

The NBA’s “golden age” boasts an equally gold class of players – Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Dikembe Mutombo, to name a few. A 1979 draft would irreversibly change the NBA landscape, though. In a sport where the fledgling NBA and an even weaker ABA had just merged a few years prior, new records were begging to be set, and championship titles were highly coveted in an era of nationwide viewership. 

With their first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a point guard from Michigan State University. A strongly desired player by all NBA teams in his own right, the Lakers needed Johnson’s skills to build a capable offense around big man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson’s height at 6 feet, 9 inches coupled with speed and agility uncommon for players that tall made him the perfect number two punch to 7 feet, 2 inches Abdul-Jabbar’s number one. 

Now 41 years in the past, Johnson’s first game as a Laker came against the San Diego Clippers, now also a Los Angeles team. It was clear before the game even began that Johnson was capable. Despite Norm Nixon, the team’s former starting point guard, having been one of the game’s best point guards, he was immediately replaced by Johnson, fresh off an NCAA championship win. 

A pregame interview with Craig Sager had Johnson admitting some strong nerves and that he had been “tossing and turning all night;” the contest certainly had reason to make Laker fans at home feel the same. At no point did either team have a strong lead ­— the prospect of having to outscore shooting guard World B. Free was a tall task, seeing as he put 46 points on the board all on his own. 

However, the well-roundedness of the Lakers came to light in this game. Though Abdul-Jabbar led the team with 29 points, Johnson followed close behind with 26, and small forward Jamaal Wilkes had 19 of his own. For reference, only one other Clippers starter had double digit points with 12; their starting small forward, Nick Weatherspoon, scored two all game. The Lakers were able to take advantage of their lack of depth, and, in essence forced, Free to beat them all on his own. 

Frighteningly enough, he almost did, save for an otherworldly Kareem hook shot within the game’s final second, sealing a tense win for Los Angeles. You can see the pressure in the celebration alone, as Johnson looks like he had just won an NBA championship instead of the regular season opener. 

Any basketball fan knows where this story heads, as victory for Johnson became commonplace in the league, and it surely did not take its time finding him either. The Lakers swept across the league in ‘79-‘80, with a record of 60-22 in the regular season that put them in first seed among the Pacific Division teams. 

Averaging 18 points per game, Johnson certainly fit within the fast-paced, unstoppable offense that the Lakers had been looking for, but his strongest performances showed out in the playoffs. While an average of eight assists was not exactly a poor showing for Johnson in the regular season, he turned it up when it mattered, with an average of 11 in the playoffs. 

Furthermore, the Lakers as a whole crushed their opposition in the playoffs, never giving up more than two games in any playoff contest. The Phoenix Suns and the Seattle Supersonics were sent home after being thrashed 1-4, and in the 1980 NBA Finals, the Philadelphia 76ers could only pull out two close wins, both coming at a margin of only three points. Johnson definitely made them pay for the extra win; however, as the rookie exploded for 42 points — the most points he had ever put up in a single NBA game. 

In fact, in their last contest, Johnson was only three assists away from a triple-double, as he also took 15 rebounds to the stat sheet. To be fair, passing was probably the inferior strategy at that point, as Johnson’s massive game put the Sixers away by 16, ending in a 123-107 victory for Johnson and the Lakers, and the first of his five Laker championship rings. Such a terror to guard had never been seen in Los Angeles, and until Kobe Bryant’s immaculate career began, Johnson was undoubtedly the greatest Laker to ever touch the hardwood.