Magic Johnson turns 55 today. To honor his birthday, we take a look back at his incredible rookie season, which ended with Magic winning NBA Finals MVP as the Lakers defeated the 76ers in six games to win the title.
Taken first overall in the 1979 NBA Draft, Magic was thrown into the spotlight right away. The Lakers — a team built around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — were expected to contend for the championship during the 1979-80 season. As a rookie, Magic averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the regular season. The Lakers went 60-22 and made it all the way to the NBA Finals.
With the series tied 2-2, the Lakers pulled off a 108-103 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers at The Forum in Los Angeles. Kareem scored 40 points — including 14 points in a pivotal fourth quarter — but would miss Game 6 because of an ankle injury that prevented him from even traveling with the team to Philadephia.
In his absence, head coach Paul Westhead decided to insert his rookie point guard at center for Game 6. Magic put up one of the most memorable stat lines in NBA Finals history: 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. The Lakers clinched the series with a 123-107 win.
In an interview with Mark Medina of The Los Angeles Times several years ago, Magic looked back on his Game 6 performance, specifically his decision to assume Kareem’s seat on the plane to Philadelphia, symbolically assuming Kareem’s place as a leader in the process:
Not only did he take the Captain’s seat on the team plane, he also assumed the leadership position.
“Never fear, Magic is here,” Johnson recalled boasting to his teammates.
Johnson’s teammates gave him puzzled and stern looks considering Abdul-Jabbar’s absence struck a huge blow to the Lakers and Johnson was only a rookie at the time. But Johnson didn’t allow the bad break to keep the Lakers from securing their second championship in Los Angeles in a series-clinching Game 6 in Philadelphia.
“I’m going to Philly to win so everybody better jump on board because we can beat Philly without Kareem,” Johnson said.
The highlights from the game tell the whole story:
Magic would go onto win four more championships in his career, including two more Finals MVP awards in 1982 and 1987. He was one of the best players ever and arguably the best point guard that ever played in the Association. If you never had a chance to watch Magic play, this mixtape highlighting his basketball wizardry will help you appreciate just what a transcendent player he was.
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