Magic Johnson in . . . The Nagging Question

December 12, 2007

Now that The Basketball Kid has wandered defiantly out of the gymnasium inside my head, I must fill up the hours some other way. I wish I wasn’t a fill-up-the-hours kind of guy. I wish the moment was to me like a fastbreak was to Magic Johnson, a realm of kinetic creation, a careening eruption of jazz. But since I don’t often see things that way I must fill up the hours. One way to do this is by wondering about trivial hypothetical questions. The hypothetical trivial question for today is as follows: If you were called upon to build a basketball team and could pick any player in his prime, who would be your first pick? Me, I’m going with this guy. Wherever he went he won, and he beat the best, and unlike the handfull of players that could be considered his historical equals (in my mind there are three: Jordan, Russell, and Bird) he played not only with indomitable will but with infectious joy. His greatest and most peerless talent was making other people look good and have fun while they were doing it. Put another way, his greatest talent was being a teammate. So what better way could there be to start a team than to start it with Magic?


  1. 1.  Magic is my all-time favorite athlete in any sport. If I were to start a hypothetical team , I’d resurrect Larry O’Brien to announce the draft…”Eric selects Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Michigan State, 6-8, 200 pounds.”

    I really enjoy your writing, Josh.

  2. 2.  He’s my pick.

  3. 3.  But can we get the Bullets back in those uniforms while we’re at it?

  4. 4.  2 : “Magic is my all-time favorite athlete in any sport.”

    Ironically, if the me who first held this card were here to see me singing the praises of Magic Johnson, 13-year-old Me would kick 39-year-old Me in the nuts. As a Celtic fan, I hated all Lakers, with Michael Cooper first and Magic probably second. But now the hate has faded, replaced by respect and a feeling of missing those Lakers-Celtics showdowns.

  5. 5.  3 : Apparently the Topps hoops photographer was based in the D.C. area. The Bullets (most often slow lefthanded white guy Kevin Grevey) are getting beat by just about everyone in my lone pack of basketball cards.

  6. 6.  4
    I used to hate Larry Bird as well, but time has allowed me to admire him and recognize his greatness.

    We were truly blessed in the 1980s to be treated to such an excellent pair, in Magic & Bird.

  7. 7.  3
    Lakers wore 1987-1988 throwbacks on Sunday, which were cool in that the “purple” numbers look much better than the current white variety.

  8. 8.  Magic’s not a bad choice. I’d probably pick either him or Oscar Robertson. Or maybe Kareem.

    Russell, but not Chamberlain, worthy of consideration as the best ever? Is that Boston fanboyism at work, or the usual clutch-intangibles-defense-yada-yada (as if Chamberlain couldn’t play defense too), or something else?

  9. 9.  Um, and Michael Jordan didnt make players around him better? Would Scotty Pippen have been any good on the Lakers? Or Horace Grant? Oh, thats right, he stunk on the Lakers.

    You have to go with Jordan. Hands down.

  10. 10.  Magic Johnson is my favorite Laker of all time. He is my favorite basketball player of all time. Now that he’s done so much in the community where I teach, he is one of my favorite people of all time.

    And if called upon to build a basketball time with my choice of any player in his prime, I would hold my nose and choose Michael Jordan, the greatest player I have ever seen by half.

  11. 11.  If you had put any other player at the top of this page, it wouldn’t be so easy to say this:

    Magic Johnson.

    While he couldn’t do it alone, he sure did make the team fantastic. I can recall Big Game James having his will with defenses, and I can recall the Captain struggling but getting it done. But most of all, it was Magic running Showtime, and all with a smile.

    Others have been great, or even greater, but Magic is the cornerstone of any great team. He did whatever was needed to make the team work.

  12. 12.  Teen Wolf. Totally Teen Wolf.

  13. 13.  I would have to choose Bird. His Indiana State team was basically a one-man squad, except for a little bit of help by Carl Nicks. The Spartans had Kelser and Vincent, plus a really good coach.

    Now if wild parties were thrown into the mix, I would go with Magic. His shindigs were legendary.

    The NBA will never be better than it was in the 80’s. The players are more talented, but the team chemistry and rivalry during the 80’s that existed between the Lakers and Celtics was kinetic. Much like tennis, the athletes have become too fast and too strong for the court they inhabit. Finesse has been lost.

  14. 14.  8 : “Is that Boston fanboyism at work…?”

    Always possible. But my thinking is that one player has more of an influence on wins and losses in basketball than in any other team sport, and Russell won two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal, and 11 NBA titles. 11!!! Chamberlain was great, but according to what I’ve read his focus was not always as white-hot on his team winning as Russell’s focus was, so if you’re asking me who I’d rather start my team with, I’m going with Russell over Wilt.

    9 : I didn’t say Jordan didn’t make his teammates better, or even that Magic was better than Jordan. I just personally would rather start a team with Magic. More fun.

    12 : Yes, Teen Wolf could do it all, and do it with style.

    13 : Yeah, the game peaked in the ’80s. They should make the courts bigger, maybe that’d help.

  15. 15.  The same shooter apparently did all the hockey cards from that era too. The one year I tried to get into hockey showed virtually all cards shot at the (now demolished) Capital Centre.

    I think Topps having all the cards shot a single location subtly contributed to my failure to get excited about it. It conveyed a message that hockey and basketball just weren’t as important as baseball, where they obviously employed more resources and locations. Plus better lighting outdoors.

    I’m not an NBA follower at all but would agree Magic would be my first pick.

  16. 16.  Not for nothing, but Magic apparently wrote his own speeches too. Now that’s enterattainment.

  17. 17.  For what it’s worth (and for further discussion) here’s my dream team:

    G: Magic
    G: Jordan
    F: Dr. J
    F: Bird
    C: Russell

    I think Tim Duncan probably merits inclusion over Dr. J by now, but I can’t veer from the vision of Magic leading a break with Jordan on one wing and Doc on the other.

    Big O
    Jerry West

    Apologies to many, including (off the top of my head): Kobe, Elgin Baylor, Shaq, Olajuwan, Barkley, Isiah, LeBron, Cousy, Stockton, K. Malone, M. Malone, Mikan.

  18. 18.  Oh yeah, and apologies most of all to Wilt. He’s one of the 12 best ever for sure, but I can’t see him being happy about sitting on the pine behind Russell and Kareem.

  19. 19.  Also, to head off any cries of Boston fanboyism over the inclusion of McHale and Hondo on the bench, here’s what I was thinking: both were great sixth men (proving they can be role players), both were extremely versatile, and both (especially McHale) were excellent defenders. Havlicek was one of the great scorers of all-time, too, and I think has become a little underrated, and McHale had the most unstoppable low-post game I’ve ever seen (second to Kareem).

  20. 20.  17 That seems really good, but I worry that Dr. J and Bird would both look like small forwards if matched up against a team with a real, big forward. Sure, you have McHale on the bench, but with Magic, Jordan and Bird, you have plenty of guys who can score in multiple ways, so to my mind, you need another big body to counteract someone else’s bigger front line.

    For instance, a team comprised of Chamberlain, Olajuwan, Barkley, Kobe and Stockton would have front court advantage (though clearly losing something on the backcourt, since no two backcourt players could ever match up with Magic and Jordan).

  21. 21.  17 – I’ve said for a while that I would take the 2000 Western Conference All Star starting line-up against all comers. This is clearly an insane comment on my part, but I love every single one of those players and think they could give any conceivable team a tough matchup (Kidd, Kobe, KG, Duncan, & Shaq for the record). I basically agree with your line-up, but here is where I would differ:

    Duncan for Russell
    KG for Dr. J

    I prefer the versatility that Duncan and KG bring to the table.

    As far as the bench goes here is what I think I would do:

    Big O
    Dr. J

  22. 22.  Great game. Love Magic.

    No way Wilt sits on the bench. Russell was only 6’10,” so I’d slot him at PF. Here’s the team:


    second team:

    Dr. J

  23. 23.  20 , 21 : Good points regarding size, versatility, modern players. A key part of my imagining my dream team is allowing for players who were dominant in their era to remain dominant. For example, a young George Mikan couldn’t really overpower anyone today, but for the sake of this argument I’m saying he’d be like Shaq in his prime, because that’s what he was in his day. So though I understand that a young 6’9″ Bill Russell would no longer be able to completely control games with his defense, I’m imagining that dominant defensive game of his as the compensation for the relatively undersized frontcourt of Bird and Doc. And Bird and Doc could rebound, too, Bird one of the best defensive rebounders of his day, Doc among league leaders during his ABA prime.

    But that said, apologies to Garnett for not including him in the honorable mentions, or even in the Dream 12 (instead of McHale).

  24. 24.  I echo 1 but I think I might lean toward picking Bill Russel even though I never got to see him play.

  25. 25.  One cool thing about this hoops set from Topps is that it’s all action photos; except that Newlin card. Even that one was a candid, as opposed to a posed shot. Magic was pretty versatile, wasn’t he? My hoops knowledge is hazy, but I thought that he could play every position except center. Johnson and Bird raised my awareness of basketball. Before that, I spent my winter weekend afternoons watching Wide World of Sports.

  26. 26.  I’m probably a better judge of basketball than baseball though in my later years, I like baseball more. All-time team:


    Russell, for those that didn’t see him (including me) gets the nod from every coach I interviewed, every single one. All say the same thing–nobody was a better competitor, nobody was smarter, nobody was more adaptable.

    I think people who leave Julius off the team never saw him in the ABA. Quick, really fast and could jump out of the gym.

    One more note: Shaq in his all-time dominant year played an all-star game with him at center, Garnett and Duncan at the forwards. He said it was an “all-time best” frontline and I’m not sure he’s mistaken but I still take the heroes of my youth.

  27. 27.  Love talking old-school hoops.

    Chamberlain. The more you look at the evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, the more one can reasonably conclude that Wilton Norman Chamberlain was the greatest physical specimen ever produced by the human race. He is probably the strongest athelete who ever lived, he ran faster than Jim Brown, could touch the top of the backboard and if he ever learned to pole vault, he might’ve won an olympic medal in the decathlon. He was a wonder to behold. I choose Russell for my first team. That’s not criticism of Chamberlain.

  28. 28.  25 : “I thought that he could play every position except center.”

    Magic’s most legendary moment, arguably, is when as a rookie he filled in for injured center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the title-clinching Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, scoring 42 points with 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals.

    27 : I totally agree about Wilt. His whole life was hyperbole somehow made real. Among the things you mention (and his well-publicized night ramblings) he also played point guard for the Harlem Globetrotters for a year.

  29. 29.  9 Horace Grant won 4 NBA titles and went to the finals with 3 different teams. His 14 pts & 9 rebounds per game doesn’t look that impressive but he was an All-NBA defender who almost never turned the ball over and shot a high FG%. The guy did nothing but win. He was the third-best PF of his era behind Barkley and Malone. As for Scottie Pippen, he was 3rd in league MVP voting the year Jordan was out. Pippen wasn’t good, he was great.

    That said, I would pick Magic. Magic was the most versatile player ever (42 pts, 15 boards, seven asts. and three steals at center in an NBA finals winning game 6 on the road as a rookie) and he did it with a smile. Jordan was probably better at his peak and had more of killer instinct (which he showed on both ends of the court) but Magic was better in the early years of his career and played happy his whole career after winning an NBA championship as a rookie against Dr. J’s Sixers. Jordan played with a chip on his shoulder from being called a ballhog and playing on bad teams at the start of his career.

  30. 30.  My greatest basketball memories
    1. Magic’s Game 6 to win the championship in his rookie year, replacing Kareem in the lineup. He had alot of help in that game as Wilkes was also unstoppable and if I recall Brad Holland played a key role. I was never as excited about watching a game as I was that one, and it did not disapoint.
    2. The Lakers finally beating the Celtics in 1985 after losing 10 championship series in a row to them.
    3. Game 7 against Portland when the Lakers came from way behind to stun the Trailblazer en route to the 1st of the Shaq/Kobe world championships. I was at that game. Most fun I’ve ever had. I literally floated out of Staples after being depressed for 3 qtr’s. To watch the turn around was stunning. To watch a veteran team like the Trailblazers not be able to stop the run was even more amazing.

  31. 31.  Chuck Nevitt

  32. 32.  Great, great topic, along with some more brilliant writing, Josh.

    Magic is, of course, a fine choice.

    I’d like to slide in a vote for the physically healthy young Bill Walton, though.

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