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Magic Johnson did no less than force everyone who watched basketball to examine the preconceptions about what constituted the prototypical NBA player.
Six-foot-nine-inch giants are not supposed to be able to handle the ball well enough to play guard. But the 6'9" Johnson handled it as well as anyone who ever lived. No player is supposed to have talents varied enough to enable him to play every position in the NBA. But Johnson, primarily a point guard during his 12-year career, dominated the decisive game of the 1980 Finals from the center position and from time to time over the last few seasons played All-Star-caliber post-up small forward and power forward.
Shooters are supposed to be born, not made. But Johnson, a nonshooter with an ugly-looking release as a collegian at Michigan State, gradually turned himself into a feared outside threat, not to mention one of the best free throw shooters in the league. And in the grind of an 82-game schedule and an enervating, pressure-packed postseason, no one is supposed to have both the playing skills and the interpersonal skills necessary to hold the reins of leadership year after year. But Johnson became the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers when he and his wide smile first walked through the doors of The Forum in 1979, and he was the team's unqualified leader when he walked away from the game, still smiling, last Thursday afternoon.
That aspect of Johnson's career—his leadership—will perhaps be his greatest legacy as a player, and it goes well beyond mere popularity. The most successful NBA teams are those with a personality, an identity, and the Lakers have been consistent winners since 1979 largely because they knew who they were: They were Magic's team, pure and simple. Late in a game, there was no question about who would direct traffic and determine the best final shot, as there sometimes was on, say, the Boston Celtics, whose leader, Larry Bird, was not their primary ball handler. Johnson dictated when the Lakers ran and when they walked, when they got it inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and when they pitched it back out for a Byron Scott jumper. He knew where James Worthy liked the ball on the break and when Vlade Divac had to be whacked on the backside and told to rebound.
In fact there were times in recent years when Magic quite literally talked his team through its paces during games, giving the Lakers, in effect, the NBA's only voice-operated offense. O.K., James, give it back, cut through now, rub off A.C., O.K., post up.... It was quite audible even to the reporters on press row, not to mention the defense, but Magic's theory was that if you did something right, it didn't matter who knew it was coming.
His leadership in the locker room was equally important. After Game 2 of the 1987 NBA Finals, in which the Lakers demolished the Celtics 141-122 to take a 2-0 series lead, veteran Laker guard Michael Cooper, a great talker, was rambling on to reporters long after the game. That was customarily Magic's role too, and he performed it with great aplomb. But on this night Magic, who dressed next to Cooper, was concerned that his team would be lulled into complacency by two easy victories.
"O.K., Coop, wrap it up," Magic whispered to Cooper.
But the questions kept coming, and Cooper kept talking. Magic tapped him on the shoulder. "Coop!" he said. "I said that's it. Now!"
Cooper smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said to the reporters, "Well, you heard him."
For a dozen years Magic had the Lakers under his thumb. And they loved being there.