Magic Starts at Center (1980)
Over 40 years ago, a 20-year-old rookie stepped in to replace the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a pivotal Game 6 in Philadelphia. Earvin “Magic” Johnson started at center for the opening tipoff and while he didn’t win the tip, his outstanding night became one of the greatest postseason performances ever and secured another championship for the city of Los Angeles.
Throughout the season, Los Angeles head coach Jack McKinney had primarily played the six-foot-nine rookie at point guard, despite the team already having a veteran presence at the position and many pundits’ insistence that he play at forward. Due in part to his position versatility and passing acumen, Johnson was named to the all-rookie team and an All-Star game starter while averaging 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game in his debut campaign.
Johnson’s teammates had spent the early part of the season acclimating to his otherworldly court vision, sometimes losing sight of his “no-look” passes. Once they got up and running, Magic’s ability to run the offense at pace became a hallmark of these championship LA teams.
Now in his fifth season in Los Angeles after beginning his career in Milwaukee, superstar center Abdul-Jabbar won his record sixth MVP award following the 1979-1980 season.
In the playoffs Abdul-Jabbar averaged a dominant 32 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks against all competition - including Philadelphia star Julius Erving - but sustained an ankle injury that caused him to miss Game 6.
Earlier in the regular season, McKinney was involved in an accident that caused him to miss the rest of the season, and assistant Paul Westhead stepped in as full-time head coach. Westhead would eventually be replaced by a young Pat Riley (whom he had hired) several years later, but Westhead’s decision to play Johnson all over the court proved to be the winning play of the 1980 finals.
Missing the inside presence of Adbul-Jabbar and his unblockable “skyhook” shot, Los Angeles turned to their versatile rookie guard to close out the series and secure the championship.
In the fourth quarter with a little over five minutes left, the Sixers rallied to cut the lead to 103–101. After a timeout, the Lakers went on one last run as Johnson scored nine points down the stretch to close out the game.
“Magic” indeed dazzled that night, playing guard, forward, and center en route to LA’s 123-107 victory to secure the franchise’s second title since moving to the city. For his tremendous efforts Johnson became the only rookie ever named Most Valuable Player of a finals series, finishing the night with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.
Often overlooked in the retelling of this series, fellow Hall of Famer Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes poured in a career-high 37 points and big man Jim Chones helped in the interior as the team rallied around Magic for the win.
The 1980 title would signal the start of the “Showtime” Lakers, a decade of dominance that saw the Johnson-led team win five championships between 1980 and 1988 before Adbul-Jabbar’s retirement following the 1989 finals.
Even though he didn’t actually win the tip - Hall of Famer Bobby Jones was able to knock it to teammate Darryl Dawkins - but the opening play is representative of Magic’s all-time great performance in a pinch.
This series also saw a historic play on the losing side - the 76ers’ Erving iconic baseline move, one of the most famous plays in basketball history. During Game 4, Erving drove baseline and seemed to float in the air for several seconds while palming the ball under the backboard for a reverse layup. “Dr J” and his signature move were finally captured on a national television broadcast after playing much of his career in the ABA, which garnered little television coverage.
The 1980 finals are also notable for being one of the last to be broadcast using a tape delay, as only five major U.S. markets carried the game live. Magic Johnson and his rivalry with Boston’s Larry Bird propelled professional basketball into the national consciousness throughout the 1980s and helped the sport grow into what it is today.
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