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John Papanek
May 26, 1980
With the Big Fella out, Magic Johnson was the Man. He came through transcendently as L.A. won the NBA title
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May 26, 1980

Arms And The Man

With the Big Fella out, Magic Johnson was the Man. He came through transcendently as L.A. won the NBA title

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Earvin (Magic) Johnson sort of waddled onto the court at Philadelphia's Spectrum and set himself in the center jump circle, fidgeting there for nearly a minute before anyone else was in position, trying to decide how to jump. "I didn't know whether to stand with my right foot forward or my left," he would say later. "Didn't know when I should jump or where I should tap it if I got to it." All the thinking and foot shuffling, the very idea of playing center for the first time since high school, made Magic Johnson giggle.

Caldwell Jones, the 7'1" forward who jumps center for the 76ers, watched as Johnson got ready for the start of the sixth game of the NBA championship series and said to himself, "Hey. Wow! Really')" Magic grinned as they shook hands.

The 76ers knew, of course, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers' indomitable center, was home in Los Angeles nursing the left ankle he had sprained two nights earlier during the 108-103 Game 5 victory that put L.A. ahead in the series three games to two. But the Sixers never expected to see a 20-year-old, 6'9" rookie point guard lining up to jump center. Giggling.

In fact, it was hard to convince the 76ers that Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't suddenly materialize like some kind of genie. Just that afternoon their coach, Billy Cunningham, had said, "I'll believe he's not coming when the game ends and I haven't seen him. They could fly him in at any time by private jet or something." Indeed, all day, Philadelphia basketball fans had watched their highways and skyways in panic, and several Abdul-Jabbar sightings were reported, including one from a cabbie who called a radio station to say he had picked up Kareem at the airport and driven him to the Spectrum. At least one fan was heard to say before the game, "I know he's here. I don't know where, but I know he's here somewhere."

But at that moment, Abdul-Jabbar was home in bed some 3,000 miles away in Bel-Air, his sore ankle propped up on pillows, his companion Cheryl Pistono beside him and Magic Johnson fidgeting on television before him. Kareem had received whirlpool and ultrasound treatment that day and felt he would be ready for Game 7 if necessary. He knew that the Lakers would be hard pressed to come up with anything like the 33.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.6 blocked shots and explosive defense he had been providing in the series. And he also knew that without Spencer Haywood, the power forward who had been suspended for disciplinary reasons after Game 2, the Lakers would have but seven regulars available, only two of whom—Jim Chones and Mark Landsberger—had the kind of muscle needed to combat the 76ers' strong and deep front line of Caldwell Jones, Darryl Dawkins, Julius Erving, Bobby Jones and Steve Mix. Still, Abdul-Jabbar had a premonition.

"It takes time for a team to learn about an opponent," he said. "After five games Philly has done that. Now, all of a sudden I'm not there. Tonight they will see something completely different."

That they did, and so did everyone else who cared to watch.

As Referee Jack Madden threw up the ball for the opening tip, Magic had decided on his course of action. "I looked at Caldwell and realized he's 7'1" and he's got arms that make him around 9'5"," he said. "So I just decided to jump up and down quick, then work on the rest of my game."

Good thing. Caldwell Jones won the tip, but with the score 7-4 Lakers, Magic went to work. Like Bill Walton, Magic threw a scoring pass from the high post to Michael Cooper. Then, like Dave Cowens, he used position to get a rebound, dribbled upcourt and hit a jumper from the foul line. Next, like Moses Malone, he drove by Erving for a bank shot. And then he drove to the hoop again. "That time I wanted to dunk it, like Kareem," he said. "But I saw Dawkins coming and I thought, well, I better change to something a little more..."—he bobbed his head, stroked his fuzzy little goatee, flashed his elfin smile—"...magical." So he did. He hung in the air, double-pumped, made the layup and drew the foul. Magical.

The Lakers won the game 123-107, and thus the NBA championship without the most dominant player in basketball. Magic Johnson played 47 minutes, scored 42 points, hitting seven of 12 shots from the field in the first half, seven of 11 in the second, and 14 of 14 from the foul line. He had 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a blocked shot. He was everywhere. He did everything.

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