Magic Johnson won five NBA championships, played in nine NBA Finals series, and was elected three times for both NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and NBA Most Valuable Player. Johnson also played in 12 All-Star games and was voted into 10 All-NBA First and Second Teams, and led the league in regular season assists four times.
Johnson is acknowledged as one of the most popular NBA basketball players of all time, being well-known for his uncanny passing and dribbling skills, and for his cheerful nature on and off the court. His fierce, but friendly rivalry with Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird rejuvenated the NBA and ushered in the era of million-dollar salaries. He was also member of the famous Dream Team U. S. basketball team which won the Olympic gold medal in 1992. For his feats, Johnson was honored as one of the NBA 50 Greatest Players in 1996 and enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Johnson is also well-known for contracting HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus), which he made public in 1991, and which caused him to temporarily retire. After winning over the support of his colleagues, he became the first openly HIV-positive player to play in the NBA. Since then, he has been a crusader for HIV prevention, safe sex, and a philanthropist for social causes.
Earvin Johnson Jr. was born on August 14, 1959 to Earvin Sr., an assembly worker and Christine, who was aschool custodian. He was the sixth of ten children growing up in Lansing, Michigan, where his parents worked hard to enable their kids a decent living. From his early days on, small Earvin loved basketball, frequently taking his ball to bed, waking up at 7:30 am to play on the court, and often shopping while dribbling with one hand when he went to a store and with the other on his way home. According to his mother, he showcased a great amount of enthusiasm in everything he did, a harbinger for things to come.
When Johnson joined the Everett High School basketball team, he immediately established himself as a basketball prodigy. When the 15-year-old Earvin finished a game with a triple-double 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists, Fred Stabley Jr., a sports writer for the Lansing State Journal nicknamed him "Magic" for the first time. His mother, a devout Christian, thought the nickname was blasphemous, but the moniker stuck. In his junior year, Johnson showed a lackluster work ethic, and his coach threatened to bench him if he did not improve; Johnson responded by working out harder and soon became better. However, tragedy struck his team, as his colleague Reggie Chastaine was killed in a car accident. The team dedicated the season to Chastaine, vowed to win the title and fulfilled their promise after winning in overtime to claim the state title. As a senior, Johnson led Everett to a 27-1 record and the state title while averaging 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.
Michigan State University
Recruited by several collges Johnson eventually decided to stay home and attend Michigan State University in East Lansing. Initially, he had no big interest to become a basketball star, instead focusing on communication studies because he wanted to become a TV commentator. Paired with future NBA star Greg "Special K" Kelser in the local Spartans squad, Johnson averaged 17.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists as a freshman, leading the Spartans to a 25-5 record and the Big Ten Conference title. In the next season, Johnson played point guard, but was also often switched to forward, to make use of his prolific rebounding. The tactic worked, and Johnson led Michigan State to the NCAA Finals in 1979. There, the Spartans played against the Indiana State University team of a sharp-shooting forward named Larry Bird. In one of the most anticipated and watched NCAA Championship Game ever played, Johnson's squad prevailed 75-64, and Johnson was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.
Showtime is born (1979-80
Having won everything possible at the college level, Johnson decided to leave college two years early and declared himself eligible for the 1979 NBA Draft. The Utah Jazz actually had the first draft pick, but because they had traded it away to sign NBA star Gail Goodrich, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Johnson with the first overall pick, signing him for a hefty salary of US$600,000 a year.
There, Johnson joined a franchise which had gone though major changes. The Lakers featured a new coach in Jack McKinney, and a new owner in Dr. Jerry Buss. However, Johnson was most excited about the prospect of playing with his personal idol, the 7-2 center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would eventaully become the NBA's all-time scoring leader. From the first game, Johnson displayed his trademark enthusiasm for the game. When Abdul-Jabbar hit a last-second free throw line hook shot to defeat the San Diego Clippers in a nationally televised game on CBS, an ecstatic Johnson celebrated wildly and hugged a startled Abdul-Jabbar , causing concern that the "Buck" (as Johnson was called by Lakers announcer Chick Hearn for his youth) would burn himself out in no time. However, in that 1979-80 NBA season, the rookie proved them wrong, wowing fans with spectacular, crowd-pleasing "Showtime" basketball defined by quick fastbreaks, making use of his superior dribbling and passing to enable high-percentage slam dunks or open layups for his colleagues. Given Johnson was also a prolific scorer and rebounder, he soon led the league in triple-doubles, racking up 10-points-10-rebounds-10-assists games in a rate only second to NBA Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson. In addition, he often flashed an infectious smile which expressed a raw, childlike enthusiasm and further endeared him to the fans.
Johnson's average of 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game was enough to make the All-Rookie Team and become a starter on the All-Star Team, even though the NBA Rookie of the Year Award went to his rival Larry Bird, who had joined the Boston Celtics. The Lakers compiled a 60-22 win-loss record, and with Paul Westhead replacing coach McKinney as a coach after a serious bicycle crash, the Lakers reached the 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
In a tight series, which featured the oustanding play of Julius "Doctor J" Erving and Darryl Dawkins, the Lakers took a 3-2 lead before Abdul-Jabbar went down with a sprained ankle. Coach Westhead decided to put point guard Johnson at center instead, and on the Sixers' home court, the rookie dominated with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals, lifting the Lakers to a 123-107 win and winning the NBA Finals MVP award.
Although only 20 years old, he had now won championships at the high school, college and professional level. Johnson also became one of only four players to win NCAA and NBA championships in consecutive years. For his feats, Sports Illustrated graced its May 25, 1980 cover with Johnson holding his Finals MVP trophy, with a simple two-word caption: "Magic's Moment".
Ups and downs (1980-83)
Johnson was sidelined for most of the 1980-81 NBA season with a serious knee injury, playing only 37 games in the regular season. In the 1981 NBA Playoffs, the Lakers were defeated by the Houston Rockets in the first round. However, in the off-season, Johnson signed a record 25-year $25-million contract, courtesy of Lakers owner Dr. Buss, who was impressed with Johnson's spectacular "Showtime" play.
Yet, trouble awaited in the following 1981-82 NBA season, in which Johnson got into a serious dispute with coach Westhead, who preferred a deliberate, slow half-court play as opposed to the quick fastbreak style which the team thrived under. After a road win against the Utah Jazz, Johnson stated "I cannot play here anymore" and demanded to be traded. Buss instead fired Westhead, causing league-wide scorn against Johnson. For perhaps the first time in his career, Johnson found himself being booed by fans across the league, including by Lakers fans.
Westhead was replaced by assistant coach and former broadcaster Pat Riley. With a strong season, in which he scored 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.5 assists and a league-high 2.7 steals per game and was voted a member of the All-NBA Second Team, Johnson silenced his critics. In that season, he joined Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players to score at least 700 points, rebounds and assists in the same season.
The Lakers stormed though the playoffs and went on to win the 1982 NBA Title 4-2 against the 76ers. Again asserting himself against Sixers stars Erving and Andrew Toney, Johnson played a strong series and won his second NBA Finals MVP award.
In the 1982-83 NBA season, Johnson had another great season, averaging 16.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 10.5 assists and earning his first All-NBA First Team nomination, and the Lakers again reached the finals series. However, in that series, Johnson's team mates Norm Nixon, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo were injured, and the undermanned- Lakers were swept by a powerful Sixers club which featured Julius Erving, Andrew Toney joined by superstar center, Finals MVP Moses Malone.
Larry Bird and the Bad Boys (1983-88)
When the 1983-84 NBA season began, another superstar had established himself, namely Boston Celtics forward and Johnson's old NCAA Finals rival Larry Bird. As German sports journalist Gunter Bork put it, Johnson and Bird were two polar characters: on one side the black, smiling and highly spectacular "Showtime" playmaker Johnson, and on the other side the white, trash-talking blue-collar worker Bird. I
n addition, the Lakers and the Celtics were the two of the greatest NBA franchises which shared an intense rivalry long historic rivalry and represented two different styles—the Lakers relied on their "Showtime" fastbreak basketball, while the Celtics defined themselves over their deliberate hard nosed style of play – and in time, one of basketball's biggest individual rivalries was born.
Both Johnson and Bird were now established NBA stars, but as the Celtics were in the Eastern Division and the Lakers in the Western Division, the only way the two teams could meet each other in the Playoffs were the NBA Finals themselves. Up to 1984, Johnson's Lakers and Bird's Celtics had not met in the post season. However, during the 1983-84 season, Johnson put up another stellar season of 17.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 13.1 assists,.
Lead by Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers entered the 1984 NBA Finals against the Celtics. Prior to the Finals, Sports Illustrated hyped up the rivalry between Johnson and Bird with its June 4, 1984 cover, dubbing the Finals matchup between Johnson and Bird "Super Star Wars", underlining how anticipated the Lakers-Celtics showdown was. However, in that series, Johnson choked. With several game-deciding gaffes in Games 2, 4 and 7, he was blamed for the seven-game loss in which Larry Bird was named Finals MVP. Celtics forward Kevin McHale dubbed him as "Tragic Johnson".
In the next 1984-85 NBA season however, Johnson played at his usual high level by avering 18.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 12.6 assists per game in the regular season and lead the Lakers into the 1985 NBA Finals, where they again faced the Celtics.
The series could not have started worse for the Lakers, as they were blown out 114-148 in Game 1 on Memorial Day, the game later being dubbed as the "Memorial Day Massacre". But in the following five games, the Lakers stormed back to win the NBA Finals 4-2, powered by the venerable 38-year-old Finals MVP Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson contributed with 15.2 assists per game in the finals.
The 1985-86 NBA season proved to be a disappointment for Johnson and his Lakers. Despite Johnson's strong 18.8 point / 5.9 rebounds / 12.6 assists regular season average, the Lakers were unable to power past the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. Unable to resist the Houston "Twin Towers" of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, the Lakers bowed out 1-4. However, in the following year, the 1986-87 NBA season, Johnson was at his best. His career-high 23.9 points, coupled with 6.3 rebounds and 12.2 assists earned him his first MVP award, the one trophy that had eluded him since his rookie year. The Lakers met the Celtics again in the 1987 NBA Finals. In this series, Bird was locked down by Lakers defensive stalwart Michael Cooper while Johnson was unstoppable, best shown in Game 4, when he hit a last-second hook shot over the outstretched arms of Celtics big men Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to win the game 107-106. The Lakers won 4-2, and for his feats, Johnson won his third Finals MVP title.
Prior to the 1987-88 NBA season, Lakers coach Pat Riley shocked the team by promising the press to defend the NBA title. His words were met with horror by the Lakers, because it seemed near-impossible to win back-to-back titles back then. First, the last successful run had been done by the Boston Celtics who won both the 1968 and 1969 NBA Finals, and secondly, back then, the series had been best-of-five instead of the modern best-of seven. Johnson had another stellar season (19.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 11.9 assists per game), but in the 1988 NBA Playoffs, the Lakers survived two narrow 4-3 series against the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks. In the Finals, the Lakers played against the Detroit Pistons, the rugged "Bad Boys" squad which was often accused of playing brutal basketball. After six grueling games which were split 3-3, Laker forward and Finals MVP "Big Game" James Worthy came though in Game 7, his triple-double 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists powering his team to a 108-105 win. As a side note, Riley intended to promise to defend the title again, but was prevented by Abdul-Jabbar, who gagged him with a towel when he was about to speak his fateful words.
MVPs and falling short (1988-91)
In the 1988-89 NBA season, Johnson was again outstanding, his 22.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 12.8 assists per game earning him his second MVP award. The Lakers reached the 1989 NBA Finals, but when Johnson went down with a hamstring injury, they were no match for the "Bad Boy" Pistons who swept them 4-0, giving the 42-year-old Lakers Abdul-Jabbar a rather sobering farewell in his final games. A similar fate awaited Johnson in the following 1989-90 NBA season, when he won his third MVP award with a strong regular season with averages of 22.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 11.5 assists, but his Lakers bowed out in the second playoff round to the Phoenix Suns. In the 1990-91 NBA season, Johnson had another strong season, and the Lakers reached the 1991 NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls. In this matchup, Johnson was pitted against superstar shooting guard Michael "Air" Jordan, multiple scoring champion and back-to-back winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. However, the series failed to live up to its hype, as Bulls defensive stalwart Scottie Pippen defended well against Johnson and Finals MVP Jordan powered his team to a 4-1 win.
HIV announcement and comeback (1991-92)
In the 1991-92 NBA season, Johnson missed the first three games with an unspecified "stomach ailment". On November 7, 1991, Johnson shocked the world with the announcement that he was infected with HIV and would immediately retire. Johnson discovered his condition when he tried to obtain life insurance and had failed the compulsory HIV test conducted by Lakers team doctor Dr. Michael Mellman. Johnson gave a grave but defiant statement, stating he was happy that both his wife Cookie and her unborn child were HIV negative and that he was going to dedicate his life to spread the word about HIV prevention and promote safer sex. The NBA world was in shock, and even U. S. president George H. W. Bush mourned: "For me, Magic is a hero, a hero for anyone who loves sports." Johnson immediately was listed as an injured reserve on the roster, but due to his valid contract, he continued to be paid by the Lakers franchise.
Nonetheless, Johnson was still voted into the 1992 All-Star Game, and the press speculated whether he was going to make a comeback. Moreover, many colleagues were wary: as HIV can be transmitted by blood contamination, they argued that Johnson would be a deadly risk if he would get a bleeding wound and touch them. One of the most vocal opponents was Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone. Johnson won the skeptics over and made a triumphant return, leading the West to a 153-113 win and being crowned All-Star MVP. The game was also a curiosity, ending prematurely when he drained a last-minute three-pointer and his colleagues refused to play further, instead running collectively on court, hugging him and exchanging high-fives. However, it remained Johnson's only NBA game for a long time.
Despite being HIV positive, Johnson was chosen for the United States men's national basketball team who represented the USA in the 1992 Olympic Games. The squad was quickly dubbed the Dream Team because of its abundance of NBA stars such as scoring champions Michael Jordan and Karl Malone and Larry Bird, but the ill Johnson was the main attraction. At the Olympic Opening Ceremony, German tennis legend Steffi Graf ordered colleague Barbara Rittner to photograph her with Johnson, and in the match against Spain, Spanish captain Juan Antonio San Epifianio and his squad demonstratively hugged him, showing that his HIV infection did not matter. During the tournament, Johnson struggled with knee problems and played for only a fraction of the games. The point guard position was mostly run by Utah Jazz all-time assist leader John Stockton, but Johnson's presence alone was enough to celebrate him with standing ovations. He used the spotlight to give courage to HIV positive people in several interviews.
Post-Olympics and later life
Initially refraining from a return on the hardwood, Johnson engaged himself in a plethora of new activities. Among others, he wrote a book on safer sex, ran several businesses, worked for NBC as a commentator, built up movie theaters in minority areas of Los Angeles and toured Asia and Australia with a basketball team made of former college and NBA players.
Late in the 1993-94 NBA season, he returned to the NBA, replacing Randy Pfund as head coach of the Lakers. Johnson won his first five games, but then lost the next six, causing him to announce he would not continue coaching. Instead, in June 1994, Johnson purchased a share of his Lakers and became a part-time owner. In the 1995-96 NBA season, Johnson made a short-lived second comeback as a player from January 1996 to May 1996. In this time, he had bulked up from 215 lbs to 255 lbs in order to play power forward, a much more physical position than his usual point guard role. At age 36, Johnson played the last 32 games of the season, averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. The Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and Johnson retired for good.
After his second retirement, Johnson attempted a career in show business, hosting an ill-fated late night talk show on Fox called The Magic Hour in 1998. Since then, Johnson became a successful businessman. He became CEO of his own companies, the Magic Johnson Enterprises and Magic Johnson Theaters, a nationwide chain of movie theaters. He also participated in a number of charity ventures, including his own Magic Johnson Foundation, and continued speading the word about HIV prevention. Additionally, Johnson is a major supporter of the Democratic Party, and his endorsement is coveted in Los Angeles politics.
The 6-9, 215 lbs. Johnson played the point guard position and is considered as one of the most successful and unique players in the history of the game. He is a five-time NBA champion and a 12-time All-Star, earned a place on ten All-NBA teams, and was thrice named MVP of the regular season and the Finals. In 905 NBA games, he scored 17,707 points, 6,559 rebounds and 10,141 assists, translating to career averages of 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game.
Beyond statistics, Johnson is acknowledged by the NBA as one of the most spectacular and crowd-pleasing players ever. He entertained a generation of fans with his uncanny passing and dribbling talents, especially showcased in his trademark "no look" passes, and was famous for his enthusiastic, cheerful nature on and off the court. He was also a unique player because he played point guard despite being 6-9, a size reserved normally for frontcourt players. Johnson combined the size of a power forward, the one-on-one skills of a swingman and the ball handling talent of a guard, making him one of the most dangerous triple-double threats of all time: his 138 triple-double-games are second only to Oscar Robertson's 181.
For his feats, Johnson was voted as one of the 50 Greatest Players of All Time by the NBA in 1996 and introduced into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. In addition, on May 11, 2006, ESPN.com rated Johnson the greatest point guard of all time. Finally, the popular Californian funk-rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers immortalised Johnson in a song called Magic Johnson on their fourth album Mother's Milk.
Rivalry with Larry Bird
Ever since the 1979 NCAA Finals, in which Johnson's Michigan State squad defeated Larry Bird's Indiana State team, Johnson and Bird were linked as rivals. From 1980 to 1988, their respective Lakers and Celtics teams won eight of nine NBA titles. The rivalry reached its climax in the mid-80s, when Johnson's Lakers and Bird's Celtics met in three NBA Finals (1984, 1985, 1987). German sports journalist Gunter Bork explained that the Johnson-Bird rivalry was so gripping because it represented many other rivalries, such as the clash between Lakers and Celtics, between Hollywood flash ("Showtime") and Boston/Indiana blue collar grit ("Celtics Pride"), and between African American and white. Johnson was highly appreciative of the rivalry, calling that for him, the 82-game regular season was composed of 80 normal games and "the two", i.e. the Lakers-Celtics games. Similarly, Bird asserted he first looked at Johnson's boxscore after every game day, stating everything else was unimportant.
Beyond its captivating mix of styles and fans, the rivalry proved significant because it drew national attention to the faltering NBA. Prior to Johnson and Bird, the league had gone through a decade of flagging interest and low TV ratings. With the two gifted and charismatic superstars, however, the league won a whole generation of new fans, drawing both traditionalist adherents of Bird's dirt court Indiana game and those appreciative of Johnson's public park flair. Sports journalist Larry Schwartz of ESPN even went as far to assert that Johnson and Bird saved the NBA from bankruptcy.
However, as fierce as their on-court feud was, Johnson and Bird became good friends in private life, ironically during the filming of a joint 1984 Converse shoe ad which was meant to depict them as enemies. Over the years, the two superstars developed a deep bond. When Bird retired in 1992, Johnson appeared at his retirement ceremony and emotionally described Bird as a "friend forever." After Bird's retirement, Sports Illustrated put a shot of both Bird and Johnson in its December 14, 1992 cover mourning "Bird & Magic: gone but never forgotten".
Beyond the hardwood, the HIV positive Johnson is also widely seen as one of the most prominent crusaders for HIV prevention and for safer sex. According to German sports journalist Gunter Bork, Johnson single-handedly destroyed several popular prejudices about HIV. Previously, HIV was associated with drug addicts and gay people. Johnson's admission and subsequent campaigns publicized a risk of infection that included everyone. Johnson also gained recognition for his role in spreading the word about HIV.
Earvin Johnson Jr. was born to his mother Christine, who was a school custodian, and his father Earvin Sr., an assembly worker. He was the sixth of ten children growing up in Lansing, Michigan, where his parents worked hard to enable their children a decent living. In September 1991, he married his sweetheart Earlitha "Cookie" Kelly and fathered a child. After declaring himself as HIV positive two months later, he has also been a crusader for HIV prevention and safer sex. He confessed that he had encounters with several women while on the road, which explained his illness, and stated to be lucky that neither his wife nor child were infected. Since then, he has established himself as a figurehead of the anti-HIV movement, as a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also became close friends with his fierce on-court rival Larry Bird and was also best friends with Hall-of-Fame Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas, with whom he exchanged a brotherly kiss prior to Game 1 of the 1988 NBA Finals.
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