Magic Johnson Takes “Center” Stage – 5/16/1980

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In the most-watched college final held in 1979, Earvin “Magic” Johnson led Michigan State to the NCAA title over Indiana State. That fall, Johnson was drafted by the Lakers, making him the number one overall pick in the draft. The Lakers felt that Johnson would bring changes to the team and ascend it to glory. During the previous year’s (1978) draft, the Boston Celtics had selected Larry Bird, of the Indiana State. Larry chose not to sign with Indiana State and played his final season at ISU (Iowa State University). Bird’s move set new standards for the NBA.

At the commencement of the 1980-81 season, college basketball players had to renounce their college eligibility and make their intentions clear before being drafted. The rule was commonly referred to as the Bird Collegiate Rule.

During Johnson’s rookie season in 1980, the Lakers registered 60-22, which was a 13-game improvement compared to their previous 47-35 mark. The same year, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 24.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Abdul-Jabbar was named the Most Valuable Player of the regular season.

In the playoffs, the Lakers advanced to the Western Conference finals against Seattle Supersonics – the defending champions. The Lakers had advanced after beating the Phoenix Suns. Lakers went up 3-1 in the series after losing a close first game. At halftime, the team was motivated by one of its valuable players, Abdul-Jabbar, who insisted that they needed to destroy the Sonics. Abdul-Jabbar finished that particular game with 11 rebounds, 38 points, and seven blocked shots. On the other hand, Johnson, who was still a rookie, got a triple-double. Lakers managed an 111-105 victory that sent them to the NBA finals.

In the finals, on May 16, 1980, the Lakers were facing the Philadelphia 76ers, Led by forwards Darryl Dawkins and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, guards Doug Collins and Maurice Cheeks, and defensive specialist Bobby Jones. Abdul-Jabbar led the first five games. He averaged 31 points and 12 rebounds in every single match, as Lakers ascended 3-2 in the series. Unfortunately, Abdul-Jabbar twisted an ankle in Game 5 and shattered the dream of the Lakers.

Rookie point guard Johnson, standing at six feet nine inches, replaced Abdul-Jabbar and quickly transitioned to center. No one had anticipated his great performance. He managed to score 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished out seven assists, leading the Lakers to a four-games-to-two series win for the first championship since 1972. Johnson was named the Most Valuable Player of the finals, which was the first of three in his career. 

Johnson had steered the Lakers into winning their seventh NBA title. The Lakers won 4-2 in the best-of-seven series, and Johnson became the first rookie to be named Most Valuable Player in NBA finals history. Johnson’s remarkable performance is still regarded as one of the best in the history of NBA. Even though Johnson found other veteran players before his arrival, he became Lakers floor leader throughout the 1980s and helped the team acquire five championships. Larry Bird also assisted the Celtics to acquire three NBA titles in the 1980’s. Larry Bird became an icon in Beantown.

Many have acknowledged Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player, but it seems Magic and Bird saved the NBA in the 1980’s.

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