Part II of a series of great moments in Lakers history.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Unable to leave the game that he loved on his own terms, or even say farewell to his multitude of fans, Magic Johnson had one last opportunity to do so. It was a far cry from that sad, sad, November day in 1991, when Earvin Magic Johnson announced his immediate retirement from basketball and the Los Angeles Lakers after contracting HIV. Not much was known about the disease back then, but all indications pointed towards a sure death sentence. Apprehension, fear and ignorance were all part of the 1992 NBA All-Star game held in Orlando. What the league attempted to do was to allow Magic a last moment in the spotlight, and a chance to say “thanks” and “good-bye.”
The 1991-92 season started in a somber mood and cast an even more dreadful pallor over the Lakers. Even Chick Hearn couldn’t muster the strength to stir enough life into his broadcasts. Instead, everyone kept referring back to Magic’s plight and the state of his health. When the All-Star ballots came out, Magic was soon the leading vote-getter in the West. He hadn’t even played a single game, yet the fans were calling on him for one last curtain call. NBA Commissioner David Stern asked Magic if he would like to play, and after some brief deliberation, agreed wholeheartedly. But the same could not be said for a lot of the players who were scheduled to play alongside of him. What happened if he got cut? Would I be infected? What if his sweat splashes into my eyes? These statements seem ridiculous now, but turn back the clock to an era of eraser-heads, fades and compression shorts, and there was a true panic spreading throughout the league.
Every NBA player felt the reverberations when Magic made his announcement to the world. Many cried in disbelief while others shuddered in their own fear of the unknown. Magic’s disclosure not only brought the disease to the forefront, but it also had many players rethinking their casual lifestyles and propensity to “hook up” on the road. “I couldn’t play. We had a game against the Boston Celtics that night, we were on the road. I cried. I really did, because here is a friend no longer being able to play and, more important, has a terminal disease,” recalls former Atlanta Hawks star, Dominique Wilkins. “When some of the players decided that they did not want to play, I called a players’ meeting,” said former Bad Boy Isiah Thomas. “I wanted to make sure all the players got out on the court and everyone dealt with it in a professional manner.” And soon thereafter, even a vocal Karl Malone reluctantly accepted the notion that there was little harm in playing side-by-side with him.
The game itself was a global event and even more so with Magic suiting up to play. Golden State Warrior Tim Hardaway was slated to start at point guard, but quickly gave up his spot so that Magic could start. Magic teamed up with fellow West squaders, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and David Robinson. They were pitted against the East team represented by starters, Thomas, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, (in place of an injured Larry Bird), Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and led by first timer Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson. The festivities began with a two-minute standing ovation when Magic was introduced. The West had lost the previous 3 of 4 meetings and the game plan from the start was crystal clear. Get the ball to Magic and run. Western Conference Coach Don Nelson made it clear that this was Magic’s moment in the spotlight and he went out of his way to make sure that his players understood that. All that was left was for Magic to actually play the game.
No one really knew what kind of shape he was in, and initially the East guards backed off of him almost in fear of somehow hurting him. But it soon became apparent that this was the same old Magic, capable of taking over games and destroying the opposition with his pin-point passing accuracy. Not until a clobbering foul by Dennis Rodman did the game finally find its groove. The West sprinted to a 44-31 lead after the 1st quarter. Drexler and Malone were early recipients of no-look dishes by Magic and soon the buzz in the O-rena was electric. NBC televised the contest with Dick Enberg and Mike Fratello calling the action. Fittingly, Enberg had also called the NCAA title game between Magic’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. The West went on to outscore the East in every single quarter and pummeled them with a resounding 153-113 victory. The game showed that Magic was still in his prime, and soon thereafter, secured his spot as a member of the original Dream Team that went on to win the Gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Any lingering doubts about Magic’s health were dismissed late in the 4th quarter. With the game out of reach and the crescendo from all of the excitement starting to wan, Magic and Isiah took it upon themselves to inject some excitement back into the game. Often in the past, the two would take matters into their own hands by speeding up the game with Isiah displaying his incredible dribbling skills, countered by Magic’s brilliance on the fast break. After Magic dropped in a three-pointer from the wing, Thomas started the affair by initiating his dribbling act, high stepping and tip-toeing through the key, and found a wide open Michael Adams for an uncontested three pointer of his own. Magic countered by bringing the ball up court and swishing another trey, this time in Thomas’ face. Thomas playfully shoved Magic in the back as the two made their way back up the court. Magic then found a wide open Chris Mullin on the wing and he too, drained a bomb from behind the arc. Magic then fired a no-look pass from 27-feet out to a cutting Dan Marjerle under the basket for an easy reverse lay-in.
On the ensuing trip up the court, Magic and Thomas motioned for the others to clear out. Isiah implored Magic to try to defend him as he went into his dribbling act. The rest of the players obliged and stood off in pure unadulterated joy, as they witnessed the two close friends go at it. Isiah dribbled the ball so low off the ground that even Globetrotter Curly Neal would have applauded. He faked, pounded the rock through his legs, behind his back, all while Magic stood in his defensive posture. Finally, Thomas drove and pulled up for a 15-footer that drew nothing but air. Magic raised his hands in victory as his teammates ran out for a fast break jam. Magic then motioned for Air Jordan. And Michael obliged the request. The side cleared out again as Magic challenged His Airness to bring it on. With the entire arena on its feet, Jordan faked left, then darted right for his trademark fall away, but Magic defended the signature move by contesting the shot, and this time, the ball bounced harmlessly off the rim.
Magic got the ball and called out both Thomas and Jordan to try to stop him. Thomas and Jordan zoomed in for the double-team and forced Magic to kick the ball out to Drexler. Jordan, in prevent mode, draped Magic so that he could not get the ball back. But Drexler, understanding the significance of the moment tossed the ball back to Magic which left Isiah isolated on him at the top of the key. Magic glanced at the shot clock and began backing down Thomas, and as he got him on his hip anticipating a drive, Magic stepped back behind the arc and launched a three pointer that brought down rain and exploded through the net. It was the storybook ending to a storybook game. The quarter still had 14.5 seconds showing on the clock, but the game ended on that magical shot as he was greeted by his teammates who exchanged high fives and hugs. Both benches emptied onto the court and Earvin Magic Johnson basked in all of the glory and love for one more time. Magic posted a game high 25 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, and garnered the MVP Award. Enberg called it best, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t orchestrate it any better than that.” We all had tears of joy and felt the emotional charge that radiated throughout the arena. And for one day, Laker fans were able to see Magic Johnson compete again, at the highest level and on the biggest stage, healthy, happy and full of life.