No. 17: Magic Johnson

A true showman
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"When he told people 'don't do what I did,' he was reminding us of something that was very deep and that is in all of us, that our self-destructive impulses live right alongside those things we're most proud of. And in doing that he showed not only courage, he showed us the humanity that is often hidden," says Bill Bradley about Magic Johnson on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Oct. 8, 10 p.m. ET and Sunday, Oct. 10 at 8 a.m. ET).

Magic, who redefined the point-guard position in leading the Lakers to five NBA championships in the eighties, was voted No. 17 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature game
May 16, 1980 -- With Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals from his living room, 3,000 miles from tonight's game in Philadelphia, his sprained left ankle propped up on a coffee table, it would take magic for Los Angeles to win the championship. But the Lakers got plenty of Magic, and the result was a 123-107 triumph and a title.

Starting at center for Abdul-Jabbar was the 20-year-old Johnson, normally the point guard. All he did was score 42 points (14-of-23 from the field, 14-of-14 from the foul line), grab 15 rebounds and dish off seven assists. "I don't even know if Kareem could have done things Magic did tonight," said the 76ers' Julius Erving. "The kid's a player."

A player of all positions -- low-post center, high-post center, power forward, small forward, point guard, shooting guard. "Magic is no rookie," said teammate Jamaal Wilkes, who scored 37. "He's a winner, a champion, something very, very special."

It was Magic's third championship in four seasons. As a high school senior, he led his team to the Michigan state title and last year, as a sophomore at Michigan State, he took the Spartans to the NCAA crown.

After tonight's win, the first rookie to be named Finals MVP didn't forget the man he replaced at center. "I know your ankle hurts, Kareem," Magic said, "but why don't you get up and dance, anyway?"

Odds and ends

  • Magic led Everett High School to a 73-5 record in his three seasons. In his sophomore year, Everett won its first regional basketball championship (playing in Class A, the large school division in Michigan). It lost in the state semifinals in 1976 before winning it all in 1977.

  • When Michigan State went 25-5 in Magic's freshman season, it was the first time the Spartans won more than 20 games in their history. They went 26-6 in his second -- and final -- season at MSU.

  • Magic averaged 17.1 points, 7.9 assists and 7.6 rebounds in his two college seasons. He had the first eight triple doubles in Spartan history.

  • Michigan State's 75-64 victory over Indiana in the 1979 NCAA final (Magic vs. Larry Bird) drew a 24.1 rating on NBC, still the best ever for a college basketball game.

  • In head-to-head confrontations in the pros with Bird, the Lakers won 22 games and Celtics 15 -- an 11-7 edge in the regular season and 11-8 in three Finals. "People who saw our games against each other saw some of the best basketball ever played," Magic said.

  • At a taping for a Converse commercial in 1984, Johnson and Bird began turning from adversaries into friendly rivals.

  • Magic finished with 138 triple-doubles in his career, second only to Oscar Robertson's 178.

  • On Jan. 30, 1996, in Magic's first game back after a 4-1/2 year retirement, he scored 19 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds in a victory over Golden State.

  • Johnson led the NBA in steals in 1980-81 (3.4) and 1981-82 (2.7) and in free-throw percentage (.911) in 1989.

  • In the 1984 All-Star Game, Magic had 22 assists. The All-Star Game MVP in 1990 and 1992, he averaged 16 points and 11.5 assists in 30 minutes in 11 appearances.

  • In 1987, Magic was named both regular season and Finals MVP. He averaged a career-high 23.9 points and led the league with 12.2 assists per game for that 1986-87 season.

  • In his 13-year career, he averaged 19.5 points in both the regular season and the playoffs.

  • After learning he had tested HIV positive in 1991, Magic called five of his closest friends -- Bird, Arsenio Hall, Isiah Thomas, Pat Riley and Michael Jordan. Bird and Hall cried, Thomas was in disbelief and Riley and Jordan listened in stunned silence.

  • Magic authored a Sports Illustrated article with Roy Johnson in which he said he contracted the disease through unprotected sex with a woman who had the virus. "The problem is that I can't pinpoint the time, the place or the woman."

  • He also wrote, "I confess that after I arrived in L.A., in 1979, I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could -- most of them through unprotected sex."

  • After being criticized for the above statement, Magic backed off and turned repentant. He said he was only joking about trying to "accommodate as many women" as he could and added, "I respect women to the utmost." Magic and his wife Cookie have two children. He also has a son from a previous relationship.

  • Magic owns three movie theaters -- in Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta -- and is planning on expanding into six other major cities. Among his other holdings are a shopping center in Las Vegas and franchises of Starbucks and T.G.I.F.