Magic Johnson sought elite teammates too

July, 21, 2010
7/21/10
5:24
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Magic Johnson joins the cavalcade of those saying, essentially, hey LeBron James, real men don't play with superstars.
"We didn't think about it 'cause that's not what we were about," Johnson said at Baruch College in New York, according to Bloomberg News. "From college, I was trying to figure out how to beat Larry Bird."

This past weekend, Jordan said at a celebrity golf event that he never would have played with Johnson or Bird, his two main rivals during his playing days.

"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team,'" Jordan said after playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Nevada. The interview aired on the NBC telecast of the event. "But that's ... things are different. I can't say that's a bad thing. It's an opportunity these kids have today. In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."

TrueHoop reader Mike, however, takes special exception to the idea that Johnson would stick with a mediocre roster over playing with superstars. He e-mails:
As much as I admire and respect these players, it becomes hard to take them seriously when none of them had situations comparable to LeBron, and all of the them got to play with other great, Top-50 All-Time players. The quest to play with other elite talent is basically universal amongst stars, be it Wilt going to join Hal Greer and later Jerry West and Elgin Baylor or all the way up to Kobe openly flirting with the Bulls and Clippers and threatening trade demands until the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol.

The fact that LeBron simply exercised his rights as a free agent to leave Cleveland to do what countless other players have done, rather than demand trades or refuse to play for the team that drafted him, should not be held against him.

I'm not even a fan of LeBron, but at this point I think he's getting dumped on pretty unfairly.

And in the case of Magic Johnson, Mike has done his homework. He found a Mike Downey L.A. Times article from 1991:
Magic Johnson would have returned to Michigan State rather than play for the Chicago Bulls.

"I'd have stayed in school," he said here Tuesday, standing alone outside Gate 3 1/2 of Chicago Stadium, the house that could have been his. "A coin toss changed the course of my whole life." Chicago called heads in a 1979 coin flip with Los Angeles for the No. 1 pick in the NBA college draft. It came up tails.

Johnson signed with the Lakers after his sophomore year of college and proceeded to win five championships. The Bulls picked second, took UCLA's David Greenwood and have won no championships.

"I wouldn't have played here," Johnson said on the eve of Game 2 of the NBA finals between his team and the team that could have been his. "The only reason I came out was to play with Kareem and the Lakers."

Then Mike gets to comparing the Lakers who played with Johnson in his first seven years to the Cavaliers who played with James over the same period. Johnson's teammates, in aggregate, had:
  • Two first team All-Rookie selections (Byron Scott, James Worthy)
  • 11 All-Star appearances (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seven times, Norm Nixon twice, Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes)
  • Four All-NBA first team selections (Abdul-Jabbar)
  • Two All-NBA second team selections (Abdul-Jabbar)
  • Five All-Defensive first team selections (Michael Cooper three times, Abdul-Jabbar twice)
  • Four All-Defensive second team selections (Cooper three times, Abdul-Jabbar once)
  • One MVP Award (Abdul-Jabbar)
  • In addition, Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy, Wilkes, Nixon, and Cooper all got votes for MVP at one point in time or the other during Magic's first seven years, and Cooper won defensive player of the year in Johnson's eighth year.

Mike does a similar analysis on James' Cavs' rosters:
  • Zero first team All-Rookie Selections
  • Two All-Star game appearances (Mo Williams, Zydrunas llgauskas)
  • Zero All-NBA first team selection
  • Zero All-NBA second team selections
  • Zero All-Defensive first team selections
  • One All-Defensive second team selection (Anderson Vareajo)
  • Zero MVP Awards

Mike adds, in conclusion:
In order to have a situation even comparable to Magic's, LeBron would have needed to be drafted onto, say, Tim Duncan's team (to parallel Abdul-Jabbar), played the last six years with a prime Bruce Bowen (to parallel Michael Cooper), and had the Cavs draft Danny Granger in his third year (as a parallel to Worthy), and that's ignoring guys like Scott/Wilkes/McAdoo etc.

I mean, let's be real, if LeBron had been in a situation like that does anyone doubt that he would have stayed? That he would already have multiple titles and that we'd be talking about his place amongst the top 10-15 players of all-time instead of dumping on his competitive fire? Magic had it easy, which make his comments seem absolutely ridiculous.

I'll acknowledge there's a chicken and egg thing here. I can hear the argument now: If James had been a better leader, then the Cavaliers would have won more titles which would have earned his teammates more accolades. Even leaving aside entirely the reality that James has been about as productive as any player in NBA history, let's concede that point, and merely say: It's still not even close.

In fact, there's a debate to be had about whether James' current SuperFriends team in Miami is as good as the one Johnson played for. Is Dwyane Wade more valuable than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? It's an insane question without a real answer, but I think we can agree there are strong cases to be made on both sides of the equation, and though Wade has a much better PER (around 30 last season) Abdul-Jabbar's was still insanely high in the mid-20s through Johnson's first seven seasons, and Abdul-Jabbar almost never missed a game.

What it really comes down to is that Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson can say they wouldn't have stooped to seeking out teammates as good as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But bear in mind they also never had to confront the reality of seven years with the kinds of rosters James played on in Cleveland.

Henry Abbott | email

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