Magic Johnson named SportsCentury athlete No. 17

Magic made Showtime a show
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

What do Mary Tyler Moore and Magic Johnson have in common?

Both could turn on the world with their smile.

 Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson battles against Michael Jordan.
The former Los Angeles Laker is more than a graceful 6-foot-9 giant who redefined his position as the first oversized point guard. He is more than a winning athlete, one who won three championships at three different levels in four seasons before he was 21 years old. He is more than the player who, along with Larry Bird, transformed the NBA from the brink of bankruptcy into a lucrative attraction.

There have been many great athletes this century. But only one has the most famous smile since the Mona Lisa. It is this smile on his face that enables us to see his heart on his sleeve. He transmits a warmth and sweetness that few people do.

"Every time I see him, I'm happier," Bird said.

Not even testing positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in 1991 was able to wipe the smile from Magic's face. If anything, it showed that the charismatic Magic was vulnerable, just like any Mr. Johnson.

"The great appeal of Magic is that he packs human virtues into Olympian size," Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek. "We see him as the nicest of guys; nobody doesn't like Magic Johnson."

Magic became a spokesman in the battle against AIDS. Because of his personality, suddenly the disease seemed more significant.

"You think his legacy is going to be one of a player," former Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "But now it's going to be as a crusader for a cause."

His legacy as a player certainly is impressive. As a sophomore at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to victory over unbeaten Bird-led Indiana State for the NCAA championship in 1979. His passing for the Lakers made "Showtime" the rage of the 1980s, much to the delight of Jack Nicholson and millions of others, and was instrumental in LA reaching nine NBA Finals and winning five championships in 12 seasons.

"He is the only player who can take three shots and still dominate a game," Hall of Famer Julius Erving said.

Three times Magic was the MVP of the league and three times the Finals MVP. Nine consecutive seasons he was all-NBA first-team. Averaging 11.2 assists for his career, he is one of only two players (John Stockton is the other) to surpass 10,000 assists. His performance in the 1992 All-Star Game, three months after being diagnosed with HIV and retiring (for the first time), is the stuff of fairy tales.

He was born Earvin Johnson Jr. on Aug. 8, 1959 in Lansing, Mich., and had a joyful childhood. "He's been this happy ever since he was knee-high to a duck," said his mother, Christine. When he received a basketball as a present, he slept with it. Then he learned to dribble and shoot it.

The nickname Magic came during his sophomore season at Everett High School, courtesy of a Lansing sportswriter who was dazzled by a 36-point, 18-rebound, 16-assist performance. In his junior year, Johnson's coach castigated him for not working hard enough, and said he would be benched if his attitude didn't improve. "My wake-up call," Magic said.

ZONE POLL
 
The summer before Magic's senior season, a former teammate, Reggie Chastaine, who had been a good friend, died in an auto accident. The team dedicated the season to Chastaine and vowed to win the state title. It did, with Magic scoring 34 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in an overtime victory in the final.

As a Michigan State freshman, Magic turned a 10-17 team into a 25-5 club that won its first Big Ten title in 19 years. The Spartans reached the regional final of the NCAA Tournament before losing 52-49 to eventual champion Kentucky. When the team slumped the next season, Magic was moved by coach Jud Heathcote from point guard to forward to bolster the rebounding. The switch worked and the Spartans advanced to the NCAA Tournament final.

In his first competition against Bird, in front of the most-watched college basketball television audience of all-time up to then, Magic scored 24 points and Michigan State won 75-64. He was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Turning pro after that season, he was selected by the Lakers, who had the first choice in the draft because of a 1976 deal in which the Jazz obtained Gail Goodrich. In the final game of his rookie season, Magic went from star to legend.

With his center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sidelined with a sprained ankle, coach Paul Westhead started his 20-year-old point guard at center for Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Philadelphia. Magic, three years out of high school, scored 42 points (14-of-23 from the field, 14-of-14 from the foul line), with 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Lakers won the title with a 123-107 victory.

"What position did I play?" he said. "Well, I played center, a little forward, some guard. I tried to think up a name for it, but the best I came up with was C-F-G Rover."

Magic became the first rookie named MVP of the Finals, and the third player to win NCAA and NBA titles in consecutive seasons, joining Bill Russell and Henry Bibby.

A torn cartilage in his left knee caused Magic to miss 45 games the next season. In November 1981, five months after signing a $25-million, 25-year contract, Magic asked the Lakers to trade him or fire Westhead. The next day, owner Jerry Buss canned Westhead, replacing him with Pat Riley. Magic got booed for awhile for getting his coach fired -- it was said this was the ultimate Magic act, making one's coach disappear -- but his play -- and smile -- eventually won the fans back.

That season he joined Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to get 700 points, rebounds and assists in the same season. The Lakers won another six-game Final with the 76ers, with Magic again receiving the MVP.

In 1982-83, Magic began his streak of nine consecutive all-NBA first-team selections and won the first of four assist titles. The Lakers, though, lost to the 76ers this time in the Finals, as well as in 1984 to the Bird-paced Celtics.

But Magic and the Lakers retaliated by winning three of the next four titles, beating the Celtics in 1985 and 1987 and the Detroit Pistons in 1988.

In 1990, Magic won his third regular-season MVP and in April 1991 he passed Robertson as the all-time assists leaders (Stockton has since passed both). Seven months later, on Nov. 7, 1991, Magic shocked the world with his HIV announcement.

Despite retirement, Magic was voted a starter for the 1992 All-Star Game and was voted the game's MVP after scoring 25 points with nine assists. In August of that year, he won a gold medal at the Olympics as a member of the Dream Team.

The following month, he announced he would return to the NBA on a limited basis, and played some exhibition games. But before the season started he retired again, citing controversy over his comeback as some players, such as Utah's Karl Malone, were vocal about competing against a player who tested HIV positive.

Magic became Lakers coach in March 1994, but the team went 5-11 under him and he quit after the season. Two years later, at the age of 36, he returned -- as a player. Having gained 25 pounds to put him at 250, he played power forward for 32 games. In May 1996, he retired for good, finishing his career with 10,141 assists and 17,707 points (a 19.5 average).

"I am going out on my terms, something I couldn't say when I aborted a comeback in 1992," Magic said.


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