Big Ten Icons: Magic Johnson

Sometimes it’s right there in front of you. Struggling to find the right word to describe freshman Earvin Johnson’s play in a 36-point, 18-rebound performance for Lansing Everett High School, Lansing State Journal sportswriter Fred Stabley Jr. settled on “Magic.” The choice could not have been more appropriate. Over the next 20 years, Earvin “Magic” Johnson would become one of the most celebrated and accomplished basketball players in the world, first at Michigan State University, then for the Los Angeles Lakers. “Magic” — the one-word handle became as distinctive as “Pele” or “Ali,” applicable to one man only and a metaphor for both an infectious style of play and unfailingly positive results. Magic Johnson had a unique gift for making the players around him better, leaving championships in his wake wherever he competed.

Part of it was physical — at 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, Johnson had the size, strength and grit to play power forward. But the ball-handling skills, vision and uncanny court sense he developed over endless hours on Lansing’s playgrounds made him an ideal point guard, “the best in the history of the game,” according to Jud Heathcote, his coach at Michigan State.

Part of it, too, was mental, or psychological, or even emotional: Magic Johnson loved basketball. He played it with a competitive spirit that reflected that love, a love that can’t be taught.

“I get a great deal of pleasure from playing ball,” he said simply.

Johnson made Heathcote a happy man when he acceded to his father’s wishes and stayed home to attend Michigan State after leading Everett to the Michigan state championship in 1977, his senior year. The flashy nickname and the flashy high school resume — he averaged 28.8 points and 16.8 rebounds per game and was already a world-class playmaker — made him MSU’s most ballyhooed basketball recruit ever, but he never disappointed.

As a freshman Johnson averaged 17 points, 7.9 rebounds and 8.4 assists as the Spartans went 25-5, winning the Big Ten title for the first time since 1967 and advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national champion Kentucky.

Bigger things were expected in his sophomore year, and though they encountered a few rough spots, the Spartans produced greatness. They repeated as Big Ten champions and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four on a definite roll, winning their first three games by an average margin of 19 points.

Penn, its semifinal opponent, had followed the upset trail to the Final Four, but the Ivy League Quakers were overmatched against the Spartans, falling 101-67. Johnson did the heavy damage from long range, as if to quiet critics who wondered if his outside shooting would be adequate for “the next level.”

The championship game produced one of the most anticipated matchups in college hoops history: Magic’s Spartans vs. Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, a little-known team from the Missouri Valley Conference who had written an amazing Cinderella story by rolling through the regular season undefeated and entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation. ISU’s white-knuckle semifinal victory over Ray Meyer’s DePaul Blue Demons set up a Bird-Magic showdown for the national championship

“I guess the whole country wants to see me and Larry play,” Johnson said with his trademark smile, obviously relishing the matchup. Indeed, the game attracted record television ratings that remain unsurpassed.

Bird, like Magic, was a 6-foot-9 multi-tasker with pass-first-sensibilities and a gift for making his teammates better. But Magic had better teammates. He scored 24 points and helped bottle up Bird with his defense as the Spartans rolled to a 74-65 victory and the first national championship in school history. Bird was voted National Player of the Year, but Magic was named Outstanding Player of the tournament.

He decided to turn pro and the Lakers took him with the first pick of the 1979 college draft. The Boston Celtics already controlled Bird’s rights, so Bird and Magic  moved on to the NBA in tandem and built on a rivalry that energized the entire league, raising it to new heights of popularity. The Lakers won five titles to the Celtics’ three, with Magic Johnson the embodiment of a “Showtime” approach that stood for glamorous, fast-paced, exciting basketball. Winning basketball.

“Whatever a guy pays for a ticket, I want him to get a show from me,” Johnson said. “He will, too, because I have to please myself, and I always do that. If I please me, it will please others.”

Johnson’s playing career was cut dramatically short in November 1991 when he was diagnosed with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. He immediately became an activist in the battle to find a cure for the deadly disease, starting the Magic Johnson Foundation to provide funding for AIDS education, prevention and research.

He returned to the basketball floor in 1992, joining Bird, Michael Jordan and other luminaries on the “Dream Team” for the Barcelona Olympics and winning a gold medal to go with his high school, college and NBA championships.

“Earvin revolutionized the game,” Heathcote said. “Being a point guard at 6-foot-9, he could do all the things that smaller guards could do, only he could do them better. I believe he is the greatest point guard in the history of the game.”

Johnson played in 12 NBA All-Star Games and was first-team All-NBA nine times. He was named to the league’s All-Time Top 50 in 1996 and elected to the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2002. He remains involved in basketball as a Lakers part-owner/vice president and as a TV analyst, but spends the majority of his time running Magic Johnson Enterprises, a multi-tiered firm that operates commercial projects in underserved inner-city communities and hires and trains local residents to manage and staff them.

“Magic is who I am on the basketball court,” Johnson said. ”Earvin is who I am.”

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