Magic Johnson's big deal

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
11:35
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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On Friday, Lakers owner Jerry Buss will be among the inductees into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

It's not difficult to shower Buss with all kinds of superlatives. But one of his wiliest, most creative and, in retrospect, brilliant moves was inking 22-year-old Magic Johnson to a 25-year, $25 million contract extension in 1981.

M. Haubs of The Painted Area puts Buss' decision into historical context:
Since a $25 million contract for an NBA superstar looks positively quaint in 2010 terms, it's hard to fully explain how stunning the deal was at the time. It was the longest and richest contract in professional sports history when signed - both the length and total dollar value were just monstrous numbers compared to others of the time.

Only two other players - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone - were making a $1 million annual salary at the time, and the league minimum was a whopping $65,000. Nolan Ryan was the highest-salaried baseball player at the time, after signing a 4-year, $4.4 million deal in 1979.

Kareem immediately voiced concerns, both publicly and privately to Buss, about whether Magic would be able to remain coachable with such an enormous contract. And given Magic's extremely close off-court relationship with Buss, many Lakers teammates were uncomfortably uncertain about whether Magic had essentially become a member of team management.

Indeed, a major controversy developed just months later, as Magic's public comments were widely perceived as the cause of the firing of head coach Paul Westhead. At 22 years old, Magic's image became that of the classic modern athlete run amok, who had been given too much, too soon, and he was even booed at Lakers home games for a time. Of course, the Lakers went on to win the 1982 NBA championship under Pat Riley, and the Magic-Westhead controversy has long since been relegated to Lakers history.

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