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Celebrating Magic Johnson

Celebrating Magic Johnson
Johnson, who turns 61 today, stands as one of basketball’s greatest icons (image courtesy of theScore.com)

Dazzling no-look passes, scintillating ball-handling, the endlessly exciting “Showtime” fastbreaks—an unrivaled penchant for the spectacular and often unbelievable. Earvin “Magic” Johnson could do things with a basketball that no player preceding him would even think to try. Always inventive and always effective, Magic stands out as a transcendent talent—one of the few players whose generational abilities changed the way the game is played.

In fact, Magic’s skill was so magnetic that he is often credited with restoring the NBA’s declining ratings and saving the league from bankruptcy. This was also in large part due to his fabled rivalry with Larry Bird—one of the greatest in sports history. Whereas Bird was distinguished for his clean shooting and “blue collar grit”, Johnson won over fans with his incomparable flashiness and exhilarating aptitude.

But Magic was more than just must-see TV, he was also an incredible teammate and a consummate winner. There is perhaps no greater example of Johnson’s winning proclivity than his legendary title-clinching performance in the 1980 NBA Finals. With star teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with a sprained ankle, the 6-foot-9 Johnson relinquished his point guard position to fill in at center.

Johnson’s jaw-dropping 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals would lead the Lakers to the championship, and Magic became the first rookie in NBA history to be named Finals MVP. Lakers coach Paul Westhead lauded Magic’s performance, affirming, “we all thought [Johnson] was a movie-star player, but we found out he wears a hard hat. It’s like finding a great orthopedic surgeon who can also operate a bulldozer.”

Johnson’s storybook rivalry with Larry Bird remains one of league history’s most compelling narratives (image courtesy of NBA.com)

Magic would go on to win an additional four championships, including two against rival Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Johnson filled out his trophy case with three MVPS, three finals MVPS, four assist titles, and nine First Team All-NBA selections. His passing ability, ball-handling, and court vision were unparalleled. A model of consistency, Johnson never averaged less than 17 Points Per Game and 11 Assists Per Game for eight consecutive seasons. In addition to his unequivocal skill, Magic’s exuberance and love of the game filled fans and teammates with joy. More than anything, Magic made basketball fun. 

That being said, despite his unrivaled star power on the court, it was off of the court where Magic made his greatest impact. Diagnosed with HIV in 1991, Johnson spent the latter half of his NBA career shattering many of the stigmas associated with the disease. His use of political and social activism to spread awareness and subvert many of the stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS was more impactful than anything he accomplished while playing professional basketball, which speaks volumes for someone who was both the greatest point guard and greatest playmaker in basketball history. 

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