Magic Steps onto Center Stage (#3 Greatest NBA Finals Performance of all time)
42 Points (14/14 Foul shots), 15 Rebounds, 7 Assists, 3 Steals, 1 Block (Video)
The 1980 NBA Finals looked to be an epic showdown between Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers, and true to form, both superstars would dominate the early part of the series as their teams split the first four games. But in the 5th game, a cruel twist of fate would change everything as Kareem would suffer a severe sprained ankle. With their captain injured, the Lakers would turn to a 20 year old rookie for leadership; Magic Johnson. Kareem would re-enter the game, but was limited in productivity, but Magic’s spirited and creative play would make up for it, The Lakers pulled out an emotional victory; 108- 103. But their joy was quickly tempered by the news that Kareem would be unavailable for game 6 in Philly.
“When maybe the greatest player that’s ever played the game is hurt, and at the time of his career when he was dominant” Jerry West, the Lakers general manager at the time, added “when you lose that piece out of the equation, you say to yourself ‘how in the world do we compete with these people?'”
Jamaal Wilkes, who ended up also having an incredible game 6 with 37 points of his own, said “Everyone thought it was going to be a 7th game in Los Angeles. Except Magic.”
Magic admitted years later “I sat in Kareem’s seat on the plane and told the guys on the plane, and you can ask them all, ‘don’t fear, because number 32 is here.'”
Johnson would now boldly take history into his own hands by putting himself in at centre. Michael Cooper, who replaced Kareem in the starting line-up, described the situation by saying “When Magic started at centre with Caldwell Jones, I almost started laughing, because I was wondering ‘what is going through Philly’s mind?'” The move was not just a psychological strike against the 76ers. Magic, only one season removed from his sophomore year in college (and therefore, only 2 years removed from high school, but we’ll get to that in a minute), dramatically announced himself as sports newest superstar, as he single-handedly took control of this pivotal contest.
“Every shot was a big shot. Every pass was a big pass. Every rebound was a big rebound.” Magic added “I think I had lived for a moment like this, and finally I’m caught in it.”
76ers coach, Billy Cunningham also chimed in “We played everybody conceivable against him, and here’s a guy, what was he? 20 Years old? (Keep in mind this was 1980, not 2003 where high schoolers when it wasn’t unusual for players to be in their 3rd season at that age) The performance he put on in that night was one of the great, great performances.”
Behind Magic’s incredible performance, Los Angeles would win the game by the biggest margin of the entire series (16 points), the Lakers would claim the championship, but the moment was Magic’s as he celebrated one of the most incredible and unexpected moments in sports history.
Magic, in the space of 3 years, had won a state championship in high school, the NCAA championship in college and a NBA championship. Jordan, at 20, wasn’t even in the NBA yet. Kobe at 20 was being swept by San Antonio. Lebron was being shown the door in playoffs by the Pistons. But Magic was the finals MVP. No player in the history of the sport has come close to duplicating this feat, and I doubt anyone ever will.
Don’t believe the hype. As much as I like him, Kobe is not the greatest Laker of all time. It’s Magic, and to be completely honest with you, it’s not even close. And this performance by Magic was his greatest. But don’t take my word for it, let’s let the great man speak for himself: “That was still, to this day, my greatest game in the NBA. And probably always will be” Magic said as he reflected on his career in 1989.