Earvin "Magic" Johnson rollicked through the NBA for more than a dozen seasons, with a million-dollar smile and a buoyant step. He won five championships and legions of admirers. When he was forced to retire in 1991 after contracting HIV, the basketball world reacted with a profound sense of loss. Gone from the game was the greatest point guard who ever lived. When he came back in 1995-1996, he rejuvenated the league.
In his prime, Magic had more athletic ability than Bob Cousy or Lenny Wilkens. More staying power than Nate Archibald or Walt Frazier. More creativity than Maurice Cheeks and even Isiah Thomas. In terms of acumen at the point, only John Stockton has rivaled Magic, but Stockton has never played in the NBA Finals.
What made Magic great? First, he was nearly impossible to guard. At 6'9" and 225 pounds, he coupled the size and strength of a power forward with the quickness of a point guard. He could force smaller defenders into the lane and shoot over them (he patterned his "baby sky hook" after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's favorite shot), and he could run circles around bigger players. He displayed keen vision and passing sense, and he was a phenomenal rebounder compared to other guards. He thrived under pressure, especially in the fourth quarter. He called it "winnin' time."
Johnson played for the Los Angeles Lakers during their "Showtime" era of fastbreaking offense and crowd-pleasing defense. He and teammates such as Abdul-Jabbar, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and James Worthy were largely responsible for the NBA's surge in popularity during the 1980s. Magic became a celebrity as recognizable as the movie stars who sat courtside at the Fabulous Forum.
It was a remarkable climb for Johnson, a native of Lansing, Michigan, who was born August 24, 1959, the sixth of 10 children of Earvin and Christine Johnson. Encouraged by his father, Earvin Jr. became a fixture on Lansing's playgrounds. He led Everett High School to the state championship his senior year. He received his nickname "Magic" from a sports writer following a 36-point, 18-rebound, 16-assist performance in high school.
At Michigan State University, Johnson led his team to consecutive Big Ten Conference championships and a berth in the 1979 NCAA championship game against Indiana State University, which featured high-scoring forward Larry Bird. Michigan State prevailed 75-64. The next season, after Magic gave up his last two years of eligibility to enter the NBA draft, he and Bird began a heated rivalry in the NBA.
When the shooting stopped, Magic had claimed three Most Valuable Player Awards and five championship rings, while "Larry Legend" had three MVP Awards and three championships. The Lakers met Bird's Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals in 1984, 1985, and 1987.
During the 1979-1980 season, Johnson led the Lakers to a 60-22 record and became the first rookie to start in the All-Star Game since Elvin Hayes in 1969. Johnson's second season was marred by a knee injury, which forced him out of action for 45 games. He was named first-team All-NBA for the first time in 1983 and was a fixture on the team for the rest of his career.
In 1991, he passed Oscar Robertson as the leading assist man in NBA history. He ranks among the all-time leaders in steals. Magic was the king of the triple-double, averaging more than 11 a season. On November 7, 1991, Johnson held a press conference to disclose his illness and announce his retirement from basketball. He returned to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, scoring 25 points and winning the game's MVP Award.
Later, he joined the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He briefly coached the Lakers, then barnstormed the world with the Magic Johnson All-Stars. Physically fit and 27 pounds bulkier, Magic began a comeback with the Lakers on January 30, 1996. With a near triple-double in his first game back, the 36-year-old Johnson showed that he still had the magic touch. After a quick exit in the 1996 playoffs, however, he retired again.
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