Year
1980
Month Day
May 16

Basketball great, Magic Johnson, plays center as a rookie, wins championships

On May 16, 1980, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson steps in for injured center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scores 42 points, leading the Lakers to a four games-to-two series win over the Philadelphia 76ers for their first championship since 1972.

In 1979, Magic had led Michigan State to the NCAA title over Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the most-watched college final ever. That fall, he was drafted by the Lakers as the first overall pick. In 1980, his rookie season, the Lakers went 60-22, a 13-game improvement from their 47-35 mark the year before. That year, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 24.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and was named Most Valuable Player of the regular season.

In the playoffs, the Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns four games to one to advance to the Western Conference finals against the defending champion Seattle Supersonics. After losing a close first game, the Lakers went up 3-1 in the series. At halftime of the deciding fifth game, the normally silent Abdul-Jabbar gave an angry pep talk, urging his team to pick up their play and finish off the Sonics. Abdul-Jabbar finished that game with 38 points, 11 rebounds and 7 blocked shots while Magic Johnson, playing with a 101-degree fever, racked up a triple-double. The 111-105 victory catapulted the Lakers into the NBA finals.

In the finals, the Lakers met the Philadelphia 76ers, led by forwards Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Darryl Dawkins, defensive specialist Bobby Jones and guards Maurice Cheeks and Doug Collins. Abdul-Jabbar dominated the first five games of the finals, averaging 31 points and 12 rebounds per game, as the Lakers went up 3-2 in the series. When he twisted an ankle in Game 5, even the Lakers front office assumed that the team would travel without their star center to Philadelphia and lose Game 6, a fact made evident by the team’s decision not to take their celebratory champagne with them to Philly.

No one expected that Magic, at 6 feet 9 inches the tallest point guard in league history, would so easily make the transition to center. Magic rang up 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists to lead the Lakers to victory and was named Most Valuable Player of the finals, the first of three such awards in his career. The Lakers went on to dominate the NBA, winning a total of five championships in the 1980s.

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